For years, residents have enjoyed one the cleanest and nicest beaches in the area – Waterford Beach – thanks largely to the beach’s sand dunes. The hills of sand topped with vegetation provide a strong barrier against the ocean waves and prevent Alewife Cove from becoming part of Long Island Sound.
Yet all that could be in trouble following Superstorm Sandy. Sandy's massive storm surge breached the sand dunes at Waterford Beach in three separate areas, sending sand all the way to Alewife Cove and destroying the dunes in those areas.
What could it mean? The worst case scenario would be a breach so large it would create another outlet for Alewife Cove right through Waterford Beach, essentially cutting the beach in-half or possibly off all-together to the public, Waterford Environmental Planner Maureen Fitzgerald said. At the least, the dunes could be destroyed if nothing is done, meaning waves will push sand into Alewife Cove during every powerful wind storm and change the area’s ecology, she said.
Yet Waterford remains confident it can save the dunes by moving some sand back to the area, and then planting more vegetation on top of the dunes this spring, Waterford Parks and Recreation Director Brian Flaherty said. The town has to get approval from the state’s environmental body, but hopefully that process will be fast, he said.
“All is not loss,” Flaherty said. “I think we can build it back up again.”
The Dunes and Its Issues
Waterford Beach has an ideal sandy beach, with vegetated sand dunes behind them and then Alewife Cove behind that. If there were no sand dunes, Alewife Cove could either be covered in beach sand or the opposite could happen and Alewife Cove could run right through Waterford Beach, Fitzgerald said. There is also a good chance the beach would be far rockier, like Rocky Neck Beach in East Lyme, Fitzgerald said.
Therefore, the town has spent a lot of money and effort protecting the dunes, including vegetating the top, which makes them more stable, Fitzgerald said. That has kept Waterford Beach sandy, instead of rocky, and has protected Alewife Cove, she said.
During Sandy, the waves in three areas went over the dunes and pushed sand onto the other side of the dune, Fitzgerald said. This kills the vegetation on top of the dunes, making it far less stable, and paves a way for more water to come and more erosion to happen, to the point it could create another outlet for Alewife Cove, she said.
What Waterford is Doing
Flaherty said Waterford recognizes how many people enjoy using the beach and doesn't want to lose it. He added that he did not want to drastically change the ecology of the area by losing the dunes, which would dramatically change the ecology of Alewife Cove.
In response, the town has put all the debris from the storm at the foot of the dunes, which provides a base for the extension of the dunes, Flaherty said. The next step is to get Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to allow the town to push some sand in the area of the breaches, which would help rebuild the dunes, he said.
Waterford is hoping to do that within a few months, Flaherty said. Then, this spring – the growing season – the town would look to vegetate the top of the dunes to increase their stability, he said.
The town has filed a claim with its insurance company, although something like dune restoration might not be covered, Flaherty said. If not, the town would seek money from FEMA, he said.
Flaherty was not sure if the town could do the work in-house or would have to contract the work out, as the actual plan of how to save the dunes has not yet been laid out by the DEEP. He said that decision might also depend on if the town can get funding from the insurance claim or FEMA.
“We got a good bit of work to do down there,” Flaherty said. “Just to protect the beach, we have to make sure we get the dunes back in shape.”