Shoals Identified As Sources For OC Replenishment Project

OCEAN CITY – Federal Army Corps of Engineers officials this week released the final recommendations for long-term offshore sand sources for the life of the ongoing Ocean City beach replenishment project, identifying three shoals off the coast of the resort as those best suited to provide material for the next three-plus decades.

In the nearly two decades since the first Ocean City beach replenishment project was completed, the identified sources of sand offshore have nearly been depleted and an effort began about a year ago 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 beach replenishment are rapidly depleting and could be exhausted by 2010, depending on a variety of factors.

With 36 years left on the economic commitment to the project, the Army Corps has been in the process of identifying new sources of sand from the shoals off the coast of the resort. The Army Corps last summer issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) identifying several areas off the coast that could potentially provide material for beach replenishment for the next 36 years and began a vast study of the potential impact of dredging the various shoals targeted.

This week, the Army Corps released its final recommendations, naming three specific areas for dredging citing their ample supply of material and their minimum potential impact on environmental and economic factors. The final plan was coordinated with input from federal, state and local resources agencies, academic experts and fishermen. The plan has been submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which will ultimately hold sway over the final decision.

“It’s a complex process with many layers of bureaucracy,” said Army Corps spokesman Chris Spaur this week. “First, a draft plan is formulated and released, then all interested parties get their chance to weigh in on it. From there, the final recommendations are formulated taking into consideration all of the feedback and input we get on the proposal. After a few revisions, there is almost no difference in the draft version from a year ago and the final version released this week.”

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 is a little over nine miles off the coast.

One site under consideration in the draft plan was an area called “Shoal B,” which is also well known as the Bass Grounds and First Lump, particularly among the local fishing community. The shoal was earmarked in the draft plan because it could provide the needed amount of suitable sand for the project, but it was taken out of the final version because of its value to the local fisheries.

“Obviously, we’re looking at these areas from an engineering, economic and environmental standpoint in no particular order,” said Spaur. “For that reason, Shoal B would not be utilized unless future re-evaluation finds its relative value as a fishing ground has declined substantially.”

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.

The current sources of sand for the project are expected to be depleted by 2010, which coincides with the next scheduled round of pumping. The new sources of sand for the continuation of the so-called Atlantic Coast of Maryland Shoreline Protection Project have focused on offshore shoals in federal waters since they contain large quantities of suitable sand that can be most cost-effectively obtained.

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.