This is the second in an ongoing series of stories that will examine environmental and climate issues affecting the Connecticut shoreline.

Waterford — Brian Flaherty trudges up Waterford Beach Park on a spectacular mid-June morning, stopping at a scruffy section of the dune that separates the beach from the salt marsh behind it.

There is snow fencing in front of the dune, which faces Long Island Sound. Visible toward the rear are dead Christmas trees, their brown needles peeking above the sand. A few beach roses punctuate wispy tufts of dune grass that resemble bad hair plugs.

“This was the major breach,” said Flaherty, this shoreline town’s recreation and parks director. “If you were to come down here after Sandy you could literally look right into the marsh.”

Sandy carved two huge openings clear through the dune and stripped sand from its front, pushing it toward, and in some cases into, the marsh.

Working with the state and the Nature Conservancy, the town has filled the breaches by plowing some sand back and securing it with the dead trees and grass.

It was a decision made after considering the reality that storms like Sandy, as well as far lesser ones, cause natural and anticipated protective reactions on a shoreline. Dunes and marshes migrate, sand washes away and builds up again, anything that can erode does and in general the shoreline moves — exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The question Waterford wrestled with was whether to move it back.

“There was the opinion of just letting nature takes its course,” Flaherty said. “Our concern was that, ‘Well, if we did that we might not have a beach to open up’.”

Communities up and down the coast have been facing similar choices as they weigh letting Mother Nature dictate the shoreline’s physical state against helping it along in the name of public use. Either way, the question that remains is whether Connecticut’s natural coastline — after two years of battering by Irene and Sandy and a couple of blizzards — can take another hit right now. 

“Common sense is since it didn’t get a chance to catch a breath between storms, it reduces the ability of the shoreline to absorb it,” said George Wisker, a coastal geologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The beach will be there. It just might not be where it is right now. You get another big storm right now — you will have issues.”

Wisker and others repeatedly point out that shorelines change constantly, as they should, but that on a shoreline built-out with roads, homes, seawalls and other hard structures, a natural response may not be possible.

Sloping shores let waves run up gradually, but a seawall or other structure may not allow that. Dunes act as buffers, but they naturally move inland during storms. A road or other infrastructure could prevent that. The same goes for salt marshes. Designed to soak up excess water, if they fill up with sand in a storm with nowhere to migrate, the water they can’t soak up can turn into floodwater.

Higher water levels usually attributed to climate change also make it harder for natural systems to do their jobs, filling up marshes — drowning them essentially — and leaving less beach to absorb a Sandy-like blow.

Because the Connecticut coast has so much infrastructure and personal property so close to the water, the inclination is to put back what a storm takes.

“If we had to wait for nature to rebuild them,” Wisker said, “Chances are the dunes would not rebuild that fast.”

Watching Bluff Point

Jennifer O’Donnell chuckles at the question of whether the shoreline can take another storm. She is standing at Bushy Point Beach, a spit of sand at Bluff Point State Park in Groton. Here and at many other state parks, DEEP is leaving storm damage and letting the land and water adjust on its own. O’Donnell, an engineer and the CEO of Coastal Ocean Analytics, which specializes in data analysis in coastal ocean areas, has been watching this beach since Sandy hit, using the rare opportunity to observe what nature corrects.

Sandy washed water and sand over the beach into the bay behind, forming a steep drop on both sides and scraping away nearly all vegetation. Eight months later, the slopes are more gradual and vegetation is reappearing. 

“Oh sure,” she replies to the question of whether this beach could take another storm. “It would look different, but yeah it could.

“It will take it and recover at some point; how long I don’t know. It doesn’t look the same today as it did a year ago.”

But she called the question of whether to restore damaged shore “always interesting.”

“I think there are places that we must save, we must protect,” O’Donnell said. “And then there are places we probably can protect for a little while longer, but at some point we’re going to have to change what we’re doing.”

‘We’re doing what we can’

Tom Tyler, DEEP’s director of state parks, has had to strike that balance. The state’s policy has been to only repair or remediate damage if it’s needed to protect infrastructure, some other vital purpose or public use.

That’s meant at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, the huge boulders protecting the bluff that holds the state’s 9/11 memorial were hoisted back in place after Irene to keep it from eroding.

At Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, sand has continually washed from the west beach onto the east one. The state decided to use sand — about 50,000 yards worth dredged from Clinton Harbor — to re-nourish the western end. That’s about 600,000 yards less than it needed and the first re-nourishment since the 1950s when 700,000 yards of sand were added.

“We’re not fighting Mother Nature,” Tyler said. “But we’re not willing to abandon that resource for the public.”

At Silver Sands State Park in Milford, other than rebuilding a boardwalk over the Great Creek mouth where it empties into Long Island Sound, the department is leaving Great Creek the meandering 35-foot-wide body of water it has become since before Irene when it was a straight 8-foot-wide channel.

“It’s changed dramatically,” said Emmeline Harrigan, Milford’s assistant city planner and floodplain manager. Milford has had to contend with multiple indignities to its coastline from Sandy. Bluffs have eroded along the city’s eastern end. The western tip at Milford Point has lengthened steadily over the years as storms and typical coastal movement have deposited sand, adding hundreds of feet of beach depth to house lots. Higher water levels at the mouth of the Housatonic — whether the result of climate change or other factors — have resulted in more coastal flooding as once-abundant marsh grass drowns in the deeper water.

With much of the affected areas either private property, infrastructure or public beach, the city and property owners have had little choice but to move things back. But much of that work has yet to be done. So contemplating another storm, Harrigan pauses for a long time.

“Would we have erosion?” she asked rhetorically. “Sure we would.”

Certain parts of town could not take another storm, she admitted. “I think we’re doing what we can to prepare, but I do think Mother Nature is going to make some choices for us in the coming years.”

In Fairfield, Sandy did what storms typically do to beaches: pushed their sand elsewhere. In Fairfield’s case, it means into the harbor, marinas, the city’s salt marshes and roads.

While the plan is to get sand and debris out of the marshes, dredge some marina areas and the harbor, and replace sand, especially at the now narrower Penfield Beach, Conservation Director Tom Steinke would prefer to see some natural habitat restored. Removing dikes from the Great Salt Marsh would eliminate the clogs from sediment buildup, allow the channels to flow better and generate more marsh to help the city absorb storms better, he said. He’d like to see Pine Creek, which flows through the marsh, re-route on its own to its original mouth.

But if a storm hits soon: “About half would be protected and about half the town’s shoreline would be exposed,” he said.

Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo is more blunt when asked if Fairfield is in worse shape to handle a new storm. “I believe so,” he said. “Sorry to say if Sandy hit tomorrow, largely the same type of stuff would happen to Fairfield. We were vulnerable before, and we’re just as vulnerable now.”

Back in Waterford, Recreation and Parks Director Flaherty said the popularity of the town beach and the protection the dune and marsh give to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center next door meant they had to do something. He thinks they’ve managed to split the difference with their dune replenishment. “Our hope is that with the fencing in place, the front of the dune rebuilt, the dune grass in place that over the years — and I think it’s going to take several years — that we’ll start to get our dune back.

“We’re doing some work to help the system and we’re letting Mother Nature hopefully help us establish the beach. So I think it’s a good middle ground approach.”

Listen to Jan Ellen Spiegel’s report on WSHU radio here.

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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