Protecting Ocean City Has Meant Damage to Assateague

Capital News Service

OCEAN CITY — In 1933, a storm hit the Maryland coast so forcefully that it split one long barrier island into two, separating the Atlantic resort town of Ocean City to the north from the feral horse wildlife refuge of Assateague to the south.

Natural forces likely would have brought them back together, if the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t installed a pair of stone jetties to keep them apart.

Ocean City took advantage of the new channel between protected lagoon and ocean to build up its sport fishing and commercial boating industry.

But Assateague Island did not make out as well in the divorce.

“When you benefit one part of the coast, you inevitably degrade other parts of the coast,” said Jeff Williams, senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “The Ocean City north jetty trapped sand moving in the southern direction, which starved the Assateague coast.”

Assateague Island, a slender 37-mile-long strip of land, lost as much as 35 feet a year until a decade ago, when federal and local governments began multimillion-dollar efforts to reduce the damage.

Now the challenge of preserving both Ocean City and Assateague Island is complicated by the effects of climate change. Sea levels have risen more than a foot in the last century and are expected to rise another 2 to 5 feet by the end of this century, accelerating shoreline erosion.

The impact has been especially severe on Assateague, which is home to the Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service, and Assateague State Park. The array of wildlife here includes an endangered bird, the piping plover, and an endangered plant, the seabeach amaranth.

But the rising waters also are attacking Ocean City’s heavily developed beachfront, which helps generate millions of dollars in tourism revenue for the state.

To protect the sandy shores of both Assateague Island and Ocean City, the Army Corps has carried out a Rube Goldberg-worthy assemblage of sand-sorting projects.

To make up for historic losses, the Corps in 2002 excavated approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of sand from Great Gull Bank, a shoal off the Assateague Island National Seashore. The dredged sand was added to Assateague Island beaches for replenishment. The cost of the project topped $13 million.

A $67-million, 25-year project began in 2003 to replicate the natural flow of sand that was disrupted by the jetties and inlet. Twice a year, a small mobile dredge with a hopper is used to excavate sand that has been diverted away from Assateague by the jetties and inlet. The sand then is deposited near the Assateague shore.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps periodically replenishes Ocean City’s beach by transporting up to 1 million cubic yards of sand that it dredges from the ocean floor 2 to 3 miles out to sea.

The city’s eighth beach replenishment since 1991 now is in the planning stage and could begin as early as this fall, said City Engineer Terry McGean.

The $10 million estimated cost will be split among the federal government and state, city and county governments. The federal government pays more than half.

The city estimates beach replenishment has prevented $238 million dollars in storm damages.

And the county’s tourism industry generates about $14 million in amusement, room and food taxes, according to the Worcester County Treasurer’s Office.

So the gains more than offset the cost of protecting Ocean City’s shore, McGean said.

“It protects the city,” he said. “Ocean City generates more money in federal tax dollars every year than the federal government has spent on the project. It allows us to remain an economic engine.”