Parks & Army Corps Testify on Beach Erosion

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The bad news? Most of the closed off section of beach in Rockaway Beach remains closed for the July 4 holiday. The good news? The Department of Parks and Recreation announced that Beach 96th to Beach 98th will open to swimmers starting June 30, on a trial basis. That and much more, including accusations, admissions and insight were revealed at the City Council’s Parks Committee hearing on Monday, June 25.

“It was my decision to close the beaches,” Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver admitted under oath at Monday’s hearing at 250 Broadway. Silver said his decision to announce the closure of the beaches on May 21 came after exploring other options and ultimately deciding that closing the beaches due to safety concerns, and in order to protect the dunes, was a difficult, yet necessary decision.

“Last month, Parks announced the beaches would be closed this summer between Beach 91st and Beach 102nd, in order to maintain the protective dune that now takes up much of the beach and keep swimmers safe. That dune occupies much of the space that was previously available. This loss of space, was compounded by this winter’s and spring’s harsh weather, which resulted in more erosion due to the lack of protective groins. There is simply not enough beach area in this location to safely operate swimming and recreational activities at this time,” Silver said. “This was not an easy decision to make.”

Silver said that erosion issues were on the City’s radar after it became clear that the effort to replenish the entire beach in 2014, was coming undone, particularly in the Beach 90s and 130s. In June 2017, the NYC Economic Development Corporation hired a contractor to conduct a study on the erosion at a cost of $200,000. After the study was complete in November 2017, Parks shared the results that found that “though significant erosion had occurred, the beach was wider from Beach 86th to Beach 149th, than at any time over the last 40 years,” Silver said. This claim accounted for the space available from the boardwalk to the tide line, but also incorporated the new protective dune, which ultimately left less recreational room on the beach and a fear that beachgoers would retreat onto the dune during high tide.

As the beach season got closer and it became apparent that severe weather had eroded the beach even further since the November 2017 study, Parks started to take measures—or measurements—into their own hands. “We closely monitored the condition of the beach from April 30 to May 13 and took measurements from the dune to the tide and estimated how much space would be available for people to use,” Silver said. As conditions worsened, Silver says the Parks Department did explore emergency options, such as trucking in sand, but they found that it would take 18 months to complete the replenishment using that method at a cost of $50 million, making it not feasible. After being depleted of options, Parks ultimately decided to close the beaches.

Many testified at the hearing including Congressman Gregory Meeks, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, State Senator Joe Addabbo, Councilmen Eric Ulrich and Donovan Richards and others, plus nearly a dozen Rockaway residents and activists, including John Cori, Hank Iori and Joe Hartigan.

Many expressed not only their displeasure with the announcement in general, but the lack of a warning, with Parks only announcing the closures four days before the start of beach season. Silver admitted fault in Parks’ approach. “While we consistently engaged the public on erosion, we do regret not being explicit that the closure of the beach was a legitimate possibility. We shouldn’t have assumed that possibility was understood. We’ll make sure we’re explicit going forward,” Silver said. Councilman Eric Ulrich also said he’s working on a bill that would require Parks to give 30 days notice on such a decision going forward.

Despite the closures, Silver announced some news that would hopefully soften the blow. He claimed that beach attendance and concession revenue are actually up this year. “We’re very pleased to see that thanks to nice weather and engagement with the pubic, that attendance is close to 1.2 million visitors compared to 600,000 over the same period last year. Our concessions have seen a 35 percent increase in revenue compared to the same period in 2017,” Silver said. Of course, these stats account for the entire beach and all of the concessions combined, not just the Beach 90s. But he did announce some relief for the Beach 90s. “I’m pleased to share that next week, we’ll open the popular section between Beach 96th and Beach 98th, directly in front of the Parks concession, on a trial basis,” he said. This opening will be conditional as the area may be closed during high tide periods. Signs will be posted to make people aware of those periods. Parks also announced that they will now allow concessions to start having live music at 1 p.m. and that they have granted a 50 percent rent deferral to the concessions, meaning they have more time to pay half of their rent to the city. They are also working on a citywide advertising campaign to let people know that Rockaway is definitely open.

“We recognize how difficult it was to see a small portion of the beach close, however we cannot forget that 4.5 miles of beach remains open and we remind New Yorkers and tourists to come enjoy the sand, sun and enjoyment of the Rockaways,” Silver said.

Councilman Donovan Richards, who came to show his support for the cause, while staking a claim for the east end of the peninsula’s beaches, challenged Parks on saying that the rest of Rockaway is open, as a mile-long stretch of beach from the Beach 30s to the Beach 50s, have long been closed to swimmers due to piping plover protection. “I get the sensitivity to the piping plovers, but this has hurt the economy on the east end. I think this conversation is a critical one, like talking about initiatives over the last 40 years on the eastern end and ensuring there are amenities there. I'm hoping we can delve into that conversation and make sure that economically, we can see some justice on the east end,” Richards said.

With noticeable erosion in the Beach 130s and 140s, Silver was asked if Parks had any plans to close these beaches as well. “There’s no plan at this time,” he said. “We’re watching the Beach 130s and 140s carefully and we’ll give full information about what is happening to some of those beaches. We’re watching those locations and we’ll figure out what to do with them.”

As it seems no quick and easy fix is available to replenish the beaches for this summer, eyes turned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) , whose long-term fixes are still more than a year away. The USACE was not obligated to be at Monday’s hearing, but Dan Falt, senior project manager of Coastal Restoration for the New York District, was on site to provide some insight and updates.

Falt made it clear that the erosion problem is very real, and there’s not much that can be done to prevent it. “Speaking about engineering tools for erosion, there’s not much you can do. You can build sea walls, you can work on erosion control structures like jetties, or you can retreat, you move structures back from the ocean, or you learn to live with water by waterproofing your homes,” he said.

He also noted that Rockaway's most eroded areas, are eroding at a dangerous pace. “For the Beach 90s and 130s in Rockaway, we estimate there is 20 feet of beach loss each year, on average in those areas. So one year can have 80 feet and another year, none, but 20 feet a year is the estimate,” Falt said.

Falt explained that the USACE has consistently had to replenish Rockaway’s beaches with sand, including in 1975-1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, and the latest full-scale nourishment taking place after Hurricane Sandy.

In the short term, Falt confirmed that not much can be done, explaining that funding is not available for an interim plan to replenish the sand, and that even if it were, USACE would need at least 10 weeks to mobilize a dredge and place the amount of sand needed in the Beach 90s, meaning it could go through the summer and beyond.

As far as the long-term, that all depends on the results of the USACE’s Reformulation Study. “The Reformulation Study  will recommend erosion control structures in the Beach 90s and groins going to Beach 126th. We also looked at the refurbishment of the Beach 149th groin, which we think is fundamental in maintaining the width of the beach in Neponsit and Belle Harbor,” Falt said. The final draft of the study will be released in late August. “Hopefully we’ll be able to submit it to headquarters for final approval by the end of the calendar year.” Falt said that after Mayor de Blasio and Senator Schumer spoke with the USACE chief in Washington, D.C., the chief gave approval for USACE to begin preparatory work for the project before the study is approved, which Falt says is “unprecedented.” When asked when construction would actually begin, Falt said, “We believe it will start before the end of 2019.”

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