The town of Sandwich is currently trying to pull off the biggest beach nourishment project that’s ever been done on Cape Cod, and one of the biggest in the state.
For more than 100 years, the town’s main beach has been starved of sand by its neighbor, the Cape Cod Canal.
And that’s left both the beach, and the town, increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
On a hot June day at Town Neck Beach, one of the first perfect beach days of the summer, you’d never know something is wrong.
Unless, like Kirk Bosma, you knew what to look for. Bosma is a coastal engineer with the Woods Hole Group.
“If you look offshore, you’re going to see rock structures that are perpendicular to shore," Bosma said, pointing toward Cape Cod Bay. "The fact that they’re even there indicates that at some point someone said, ‘wow this beach is eroding more severely than we want it to, how can we stop that erosion?’”
Bosma has been working with the town of Sandwich on the erosion problems at this beach for 20 years.
He said the steep, carved-out dunes are also a telltale sign of an unhealthy beach. “That has clearly happened due to waves coming in and eroding some of that material.”
Then there are the things private homeowners have done all up and down the beach—put in walls of sand bags, imported sand and planted new beach grass—to try to keep the erosion at bay.
And this is not just typical Cape Cod beach erosion, though that’s part of it.
According to Dave DeConto, the natural resources director in Sandwich, “everybody has the erosion problem. Everybody has the sea-level rise problem. Everybody has the storm problem. But no one has loss of sand source that we do.”
What he means by “loss of sand source,” is that the long rock jetties that were built to keep sand from filling in the neighboring Cape Cod Canal also keep sand from getting to Town Neck.
Because of that, Bosma said, “this beach system, Town Neck Beach, has been starved from sediment since canal was put in, which has been over 100 years now.”
Meanwhile, the beach on the far side of the canal, Scusset Beach, is growing. Big time.
So what Sandwich wants to do is dredge that extra sand from Scusset Beach, transport it across the canal, and deposit it on Town Neck.
“Kind of helping Mother Nature along,” Bosma said.
And then, effectively, use that sand to completely rebuild the dunes and dramatically widen the beach at Town Neck, to make the whole system more resilient.
They have the plan. And most of the permits—which is no small thing. But, Bosma said, “it’s going to come down to the funding, and how we’re going to make the funding come together.”
Which is also no small thing. Because this is an expensive proposition—upwards of $10 million dollars. Which is a lot of money for a small town.
So what Sandwich is hoping for, and pushing for, is for the federal government to take responsibility for creating the problem in the first place. And pay to fix it.
Mike Riccio, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, is in charge of the Section 111 study that’s underway right now, that will determine, officially, what everybody already seems to know—that the jetties are at least part of the problem. And then, what to do about it.
“The problems aren’t that technically challenging,” Riccio said. “It’s more a matter of how do we make the country’s dollars go the farthest in order to maximize this project. And that’s more of a policy and economics thing than it is a coastal engineering thing.”
It’s already been more than 10 years since Sandwich first asked the Army Corps to do this study.
And Dave DeConto, the natural resources director, is worried that Sandwich could run out of time.
“We don’t have three to four years left with this dune system the way it is now,” he said.
The best place to really understand what’s at stake in Sandwich, if the dunes at Town Neck were to wash away completely, is not actually right on the beach, but back behind it. Where the town’s iconic boardwalk stretches more than a thousand feet across the marsh and down to the beach.
From there, DeConto said, you can see the interdependence of the system. “The dune system, the beach in front, and the marsh behind is known as a barrier beach system. And they’re very, very important. Because the dunes there and the marsh protect all uplands from town.”
Everything is connected, he said. The beach protects the dunes and the dunes protect the marsh. So if the dunes were to disappear, “and we had water coming over every single high tide and filling this up, this would become Sandwich harbor. Not Sandwich estuary.”
And without the dunes, DeConto said, much of downtown Sandwich—including the fire station, the police station and so many businesses and homes—would be at much greater risk of flooding.
“If that went, how much money would it take to rebuild downtown Sandwich? $500 million? $700 million? A billion? I don’t know how you put your finger on all that.”
That, DeConto said, is really what they’re talking about. And why it’s worth spending $10 million dollars to rebuild a beach.
To protect everything else that’s already been built behind it.
Samantha Fields is a reporting fellow for the GroundTruth Project, stationed at WCAI.