Storm-Lashed Cape Is A Fragile Environment

Coastline erosion threatens human development, which in turn interferes with natural rebuilding processes

HIGH above Cape Cod's Ballston Beach on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean sits a boarded-up summer cottage. Despite its solid appearance and its well-kept yard, the lone cottage looks fragile as it overlooks an eroded beach area below.

Down at beach level, a large breach interrupts the natural barrier dune lining the shore. The result of a fierce northeasterly storm earlier this month, the gap is just one example of the storm's impact here on Massachusetts's Cape Cod.

Frank Ackerman, chief of interpretation and cultural resources for the Cape Cod National Seashore, surveys the beach erosion and the cottage on the hill.

Although this cottage is not currently at risk, homeowners don't always understand the consequences of living so close to the coast, Mr. Ackerman says.

"If we don't keep up with the inevitable deterioration with these man-made things, pretty soon they fall to pieces, and they actually may fly to pieces," he says.

Cape Cod, the long arm of land jutting out from the New England coastline that draws thousands of tourists every summer, has experienced its share of coastal damage over the years. Although the recent winter storm left minimal property damage here, Cape Cod landowners and environmentalists find themselves revisiting some new and old conservation issues of this changing natural environment.

Last year, the Cape was hit with Hurricane Bob in August followed by an unnamed coastal storm only two months later. In those storms, boats were smashed along beaches, basements were flooded, and residents were without power for several days.

The northeasterly storm this month produced waves as high as 20 feet and winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour. Many of the region's beaches, marshes, and waterways were washed out while residents coped with power outages and flooding. Docks, boardwalks, summer cottages, and other coastal structures along the Cape's shorelines were damaged or swept out to sea.

In the wake of these three coastal storms in just 16 months, conservationists, residents, and business owners find themselves reassessing the pros and cons of coastal development in this resort region.

"People have become very aware of the issues concerning both the environment and the economy. Both of them have to work in concert with each other," says Pamela Rubinoff, Cape Cod regional coordinator for the state's Coastal Zone Management office.

But the human battle against nature continues to be a part of Cape Cod life. Residents try to construct sea walls or jetties to protect their coastal homes from storms, while conservationists say these barriers threaten the ocean's beach-rebuilding process. In addition, paved roads and buildings that are constructed precariously close to the shore do not always withstand coastal storms and can interfere with dune rebuilding.

As an example, Ackerman points to a historical building in North Truro, built in 1907 as a small tourist hotel. Called the Highland House and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the building was frequented early in the century by city dwellers who visited the Cape in the summer to take in the cool breezes. But the poorly constructed building, which stands right in the path of the outer Cape's high coastal winds, continues to be battered by storms. In this month's storm, a portion of the b uilding's roof flew off.

MEANWHILE, the town of Truro grapples with the dilemma of whether to rebuild the historic structure or to repair only essential elements in order to preserve the hotel's historical flavor.

"We as a society have learned a lot in recent decades, and we now know that we should develop our upland in those areas where it will not interfere with coastal processes and where coastal processes will not interfere in the development," says Graham Giese, a coastal geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. "But we are stuck with development that was produced without full knowledge or full understanding of that."

Dr. Giese and other conservationists say coastal storms produce changes in the environment that are both natural and beneficial. The problem arises when development tries to encroach on these natural processes.

For example, each year the central part of the Cape's eastern arm loses about 2-1/2 feet of coastal land because of rising sea levels. Meanwhile, sand from the outer mid-Cape region drifts both north toward Provincetown and south toward Chatham, resulting in an accretion of land in those areas. Giese says this natural process will produce new barrier beaches that help protect harbors, waterways, and marshes. But filling marsh lands, constructing dikes, and building on dune land interferes with this natur al process, he says.

"What we are doing is giving up some land, which is not so valuable, and converting it into something that is valuable. That's how our system works here. Its sort of like money. It you don't spend any, you won't have anything," Giese says.

The town of Chatham, Mass., on the southestern coast of the outer Cape, is seeing changes in its natural-barrier beach system. After a 1987 storm, the town's outer barrier beach split, and a new inlet was formed. This left the mainland shore exposed to high tides.

"Some of the houses built there were there a long time - some [were built] without the knowledge that they were in a vulnerable area," says Chatham town planner Margaret Swanson.

Here in Truro, homeowners living along the Pamet River near Ballston Beach are worried about how the breach in the dune will affect a nearby fresh-water marsh. Conservationists are concerned that if enough salt water from the ocean seeps into the marsh through the breach, the fresh-water marsh could turn into a salt-water marsh.

"With this big influx of salt water, most likely some large portion of the wetland will be killed. The plants will die. That is one of the nicest wetlands on the Cape right now," says David Aubrey, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The Pamet River, which runs across the Cape's midsection in Truro, is divided by a man-made dike built more than 100 years ago to prevent tidal surges from Cape Cod Bay. The dike has also prevented salt water from reaching the fresh-water marsh.

SOME are concerned that the northern tip of the Cape may eventually become an island if Cape Cod Bay waters are connected to the Atlantic Ocean.

"There is some fear that if a dike erodes away, there will be more of a veritable river, and it will be difficult to get across," Dr. Aubrey says. "In my mind, that's a low probability. It really depends on how bad the storms will be."

Some nearby homeowners are also worried that their well water could be contaminated by the influx of salt water into the fresh-water marsh.

On a crisp winter afternoon, Brian Dunne, a resident of Truro who lives on a hill near the Pamet River, is busy building a new garage near his home with his wife and two young daughters. He says he is not concerned about the salt-water contamination because his well-water supply is far away from the flooded marsh lands below.

But as he looks toward the eroding beach area in the distance, he says he is concerned about the future of his two daughters, Clementine, 2, and Isadora, 5.

"[Our family] bought this place to stay here forever, and it's a little scary to think it could be gone in 100 years," he says.

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