In addition to being a Delaware lawyer, I am also a part-time lifeguard with a career that has spanned 32 summers guarding the Delaware beaches as well as a lifelong surfer. On a recent trip to Rodanthe on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I had the opportunity to watch as my two youngest children accomplished the milestone of paddling into and surfing their first waves unassisted by Dad. Thereafter, I literally could not get them out of the water the rest of the trip. They caught the surfing bug that first bit me more than 35 years ago. *When we returned to Delaware, our discussions centered around when could we next go surfing and where could we go. Unfortunately, none of the places I regularly surfed as a kid were likely to produce the conditions suitable to my children’s skills. We, therefore, settled on a day trip to Assateague Island where the conditions were great for dear old Dad but the current too strong and the waves too big for my two young teenagers as a storm had come through the previous day.
I was then left with the depressing realization that because of the steps the State and Federal government have taken with beach replenishment, my children would likely never have the Ocean experience I was blessed to have. I was lucky enough to grow up surfing, bodyboarding and body surfing the beaches of Delaware and Ocean City almost every day my Mom could get off work. Even on the smallest of days there would usually be something to ride and I would be in the water until my Mom told me it was time to leave. With the shoreline in its current condition, my kids will have to settle for the infrequent occasions when the conditions are just right or have to make the trek to Assateague to enjoy the ocean as I did.
As a lifeguard, I have seen the impact of beach replenishment on those who dare to enter into the shore-break created by the artificial shoreline we now witness in Delaware south to Ocean City. What was once a gentle wave rolling across a sandbar and onto the shore where children could play and grandmothers could wade the shallows, is now an impact zone where the full energy of the waves crash directly onto the shore. There is simply no safe place for anyone to be where the waves gently lap at their ankles. The distance between shoreline and where the waves break is often a span of mere feet rather than the twenty or thirty yards it was prior to beach replenishment. With the current conditions, there are more people crowded into a smaller space and it is much more difficult to see things develop before they happen and prevent them. Anyone foolhardy enough to ride a wave more often than not will find themselves slammed on the shoreline scraped from the sand rather than having an enjoyable ride from the wave to the shallows.
As a l lifeguard, my children used to often accompany to work on the days I guarded. After too many occasions of coming to the beach to find nothing but a dangerous shorebreak, they now stay home because they know it is doubtful they will be able to enjoy themselves riding waves. Even if they the conditions are ok, they know it will be short-lived and limited to the short period of time surrounding low tide.
The current situation should not surprise anyone although it is fascinating to see how the dialog has changed from twenty years ago. The conversation used to be about how we can return the coast to its natural state that allows sand to shift from season to season and feed from the sandbars and natural dunes. Anyone foolish enough to build property in front of the dune line would suffer the consequences as would those municipalities foolish enough to remove dunes for boardwalks and businesses. Mother Nature would eventually reclaim what was hers. The conversation is now to protect property values, beach businesses and the resort rental business at all cost. To accomplish that we are building artificial beaches out to what used to be 15 feet of water a dozen years ago, with a shoreline that goes from dry sand to overhead in a matter of feet.
I find it very sad that this generation of kids will not have the experiences I did. Growing up in this area and for the generations before me, going to the beach meant enjoying the soothing salt water of the ocean and the rolling waves of the surf. I’ve always countered those who have called me a beach bum that I am an Ocean bum. I love playing in the Ocean, not lying on a towel tanning in the sweltering heat of summer. I can do that at home by my pool. For those like me though, I guess the future will consist of loading up the boards and fins and heading down to Assateague or anywhere else where we can still enjoy the ocean for the marvelous gift it is. Hopefully Delaware and the surrounding areas that have latched on to beach replenishment as their economic savior will realize that their solution is short sited and temporary. Although beach erosion is a real issue, the rate of erosion actually increases with beach replenishment and the need for more and more extensive replenishment will continue to be needed in the years to come. Responsible shoreline conservation is what needs to be emphasized, not the quick-fix solution of beach replenishment. Let’s start the conversation.