OCEAN CITY – In the nearly two decades since the first Ocean City beach replenishment project was completed, the identified sources of sand offshore have been nearly depleted, and an effort is now underway to find new sources of material offshore for the remainder of the 50-year economic life of the project through 2044.
According to the federal Army Corps of Engineers, the identified sources of sand offshore for the ongoing beach replenishment project in Ocean City are rapidly depleting and could be exhausted by 2010, depending on a variety of factors. With 37 years left on the economic commitment to the project, the Army Corps is now in the process of identifying new sources of sand from the shoals off the coast of the resort.
The beaches of Ocean City are replenished roughly every four years with sand pumped from identified shoals off the coast of the resort in a project that began in 1991. Depending on the ferocity of storms and other natural factors, roughly 800,000 cubic yards of sand are pumped onto the beach in Ocean City every four years.
With a 50-year local, state and federal economic commitment that will carry the project through to 2044, the amount of sand needed to continue the beach replenishment effort for the next 37 years or so ranges from 6.8 million cubic yards to as high as 15 million cubic yards. The great disparity in the estimates is related to the frequency and strength of coastal storms that ravage the coast of the resort each year.
According to Army Corps officials, barring severe storms, the 800,000 cubic yards of sand needed every four years equates to 6.8 billion cubic yards for the life of the project. However, if the pattern of increased storm activity over the last decade or so continues, the estimate jumps to 15 million cubic yards of sand.
With the current sources of sand for the project expected to be depleted by 2010, which coincides with the next scheduled round of pumping, the Army Corps is in the process of identifying new sources of sand off the coast of the resort to carry the project through its 2044 completion date. New sources of sand for the continuation of the so-called Atlantic Coast of Maryland Shoreline Protection Project have focused thus far on offshore shoals in federal waters since they contain large quantities of suitable sand that can be most cost-effectively obtained.
The Army Corps has identified three potential sources for the sand in federal waters not far off the coast of Ocean City including the Weaver Shoal, the Isle of Wight Shoal and the so-called “Shoal A.” The Weaver and Isle of Wight Shoals lie about eight miles off the coast, while Shoal A lies about 9.5 miles off the coast.
Also under consideration is an area called “Shoal B,” which is also well known as the Bass Grounds and the First Lump, particularly among the fishing community. Army Corps project manager Mary Dan said this week those areas could provide the needed amount of suitable sand for the project, but would likely not be considered because of their value to the local fisheries.
“Obviously, we’re looking at these areas from an engineering, economic and environmental standpoint in no particular order,” she said. “For that reason, Shoal B would not be utilized unless future re-evaluation finds its relative value as a fishing ground has declined substantially.”
Whatever sites are eventually chosen, the Army Corps has strict dredging guidelines and constraints to follow to minimize impacts to the shoals. For example, in order to best ensure the long-term habitat features of the shoals are maintained, no more than about five percent of the total volume of any shoal can be dredged.
The total bottom area impacted by dredging through the remainder of the project life is estimated to be about seven square miles of seafloor. Despite the relatively large area anticipated to be dredged, Dan said the Corps is extremely aware of the need to carefully preserve the natural features of the target areas.
“With the dredging guidelines and constraints in place, it is anticipated the long-term integrity of the shoals and their habitat functions for marine life, will be maintained,” she said.
While the sheer volume of dredged material for the life of the project is somewhat alarming, the Army Corps reports good news on the economic side of the beach replenishment program, which is funded jointly by the town of Ocean City, Worcester County, the state of Maryland and the federal government. An updated cost estimate of the remainder of the project comes in at around $268 million, which is considerably less than the $500 million estimated when the project was first designed in 1989. The substantial reduction is due in large part because the rate of inflation has been lower than originally projected, but also because of increased project efficiency.
The Army Corps, in conjunction with the town of Ocean City and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently accepting public comment on the recommended areas for offshore dredging. To that end, a public meeting is planned for next Wednesday at City Hall in Ocean City at 7 p.m., during which the Corps and its partners will outline the project and accept public comments on the planned sites.