Demand for sand spurs oceanfront controversies

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Sand is becoming New England coast dwellers’ most coveted and controversial commodity as they try to battle rising seas and severe erosion caused by recent storms, often at the expense of taxpayers.

“It’s called the sand wars,’’ S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal geologist and scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Mass., and the University of Hawaii, told the Boston Globe in an in-depth report published this month.

The disputes happening across the coastal United States “are only going to get more intense,” Williams told the Globe.

Debates about who gets sand, who pays for it and where it comes from are becoming some of New England’s most contentious oceanfront issues, as sea levels in the region are rising annually three to four times faster than the global average.

Scientists predict that the ocean could rise 3 feet by the end of the century and that the region could see more powerful storms such as those in 2011 and 2012 because of climate change. The one-two punch of powerful storm surges atop higher seas is expected to mean more erosion and flooding — reaching farther inland.

Among the seaside squabbles in Massachusetts, some residents in Salisbury want $300,000 in state taxpayer dollars for sand to help protect private homes from the ocean’s fury. A public beach is poised to receive about 20,000 truckloads of sand from Saugus as part of a massive beach replenishment and improvement project that is costing state taxpayers $26 million.

For all the billions of grains of silica on and off New England’s coastline, sand is maddeningly difficult — and expensive — to get. Fishermen and their regulators have opposed the mining of offshore sand because they worry that it will harm sea life.

Environmental officials say bulldozing it across beaches can accelerate erosion and harm bird nesting grounds. Mining and trucking sand from inland sources to beaches can be more than four times as expensive, damage roads and produce sand that is often darker and a different texture.

The availability of large amounts of sand that once was deposited onto area beaches as a byproduct of federal navigational dredging is declining, along with funding for those projects.

“Massachusetts is one of the most restrictive states for sand mining,’’ said John Ramsey, coastal engineer and co-owner of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering, which works with coastal communities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

He said commercial fishing interests have prevented the conversation in Massachusetts, but elsewhere “sand mining is accepted — and encouraged — as a method of shore protection.”

Recordkeeping is poor on New England sand replenishment and costs are often shared among multiple government and even private entities. Massachusetts, however, has begun to develop a database to track the use of sand. Using that database and in interviews with coastal communities, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting conservatively estimates that more than $40 million in federal, state, and local funds have been spent to place sand on Massachusetts’ public beaches in the past 10 years.

That amount is minuscule, compared with the billions being spent to protect and replenish beaches farther south in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — yet coastal specialists say demand for sand is guaranteed to rise for public and private beaches.

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