Though it's a cool day for late spring and not even the weekend, vacationers' cars are pouring across the bridges into Ocean City. Dennis Dare, the resort's town manager, is feeling good about the state of his beach. "Clean and safe," he says, when asked the first words that come to mind to describe the 10-mile sand spit. To keep it that way, O. C. spends more than $1.5 million a year on lifeguards and nightly trash pickup and sand grooming.

If Mr. Dare wanted to make a bad pun, he might say his town is feeling "pumped" about its future. A bright red dredge, half as long as an aircraft carrier, lies a couple of miles offshore from 81st Street, sucking nearly two tons of sand a second from the ocean bed and spewing it from 30-inch piping onto the beach -- enough, by year's end, to repair old erosion and add a sacrificial paunch to the beach to absorb the damage from future storms.

Since it began in 1988, the project has pumped almost 8 million cubic yards of sand to the beach; think of it as 1,600,000 dump trucks' worth. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the 50-year cost, including periodic maintenance pumping but excluding repairs from "catastrophic storms," is about $500 million -- or $1 million a mile, annually.

The town's share of that cost is only about $130,000 a mile. Federal funds account for around $470,000, and the state and Worcester County provide the remaining $400,000. It's a bargain for all, Mr. Dare says, given the $80 million or so generated in tax revenues every year by Ocean City. The million-dollar-a-mile beach protects property whose value is getting close to $1 billion a square mile. "You buy land here," Mr. Dare says, "by the square foot."


A few miles south and a world away, flocks of migrating shorebirds wheel and flash in marvelous synchrony across the jade and foam of surf. Elongating, dissolving, compacting, each flock is sentient smoke, shape-shifting as easily as feathered thought. West from the beach, beyond zones of dune and bayberry thicket, the salt marsh is greening, festooned prettily with egrets and herons, raucous with willets and oystercatchers.

There, at National Park Service headquarters for Assateague Island, Carl Zimmerman, a naturalist, is as excited as Mr. Dare but for a different reason: prospects for parts of the national seashore's 20-mile stretch between Ocean City and the Virginia line.

One might wonder why Mr. Zimmerman is not alarmed instead. The areas he is pointing out on a recent satellite photo of the seashore look like a prelude to disaster. After being battered by fierce nor'easters in 1991 and 1992, the once-substantial dunes are eroding. In half a dozen areas they are nearly flattened, and fans of sand spreading across the width of the barrier island indicate that inlets may soon cut through to the marshes and back bays.

But Mr. Zimmerman applauds the progression of unfettered nature here. "We just hope it can continue," he says. Showcasing it is a mission of the Park Service, just as providing sun and fun -- and protecting the assessable tax base -- is the mission a few miles north in Ocean City. The same nor'easters that delighted the Park Service are the reason Ocean City is still pumping sand more than two years after its new beach was supposed to be finished.

But there is more going on here than just a neat and simple contrast of resort vs. park, of human domination vs. acceptance of nature. For, like it or not, the 47-mile seashore that runs from about the Delaware line to Chincoteague, Va., is historically and ecologically the same animal; its fate connected across mere political lines in ways just beginning to be fully appreciated.

Its occupants, besides the resort and the national park, include a major federal wildlife refuge and a small state park. Perhaps no comparably sized segment of the 2,700 miles of barrier island seashore from Maine to Texas is so diversely tenanted; or offers such a range of delights, from indoor ice-skating in sight of the dunes to back-country canoeing in sight of wild ponies. Nor does any other stretch of coastal sand present a more complex and intriguing stew of management issues.

Historically, Fenwick Island, which includes Ocean City, and Assateague Island, which runs from the Ocean City inlet to Chincoteague, were not islands at all. Paradoxically, they were also, at times, several islands. During the last few thousand years, rising sea level has eroded huge volumes of sand from Delaware's mainland. And, from what coastal geologists call a "nodal point," near South Bethany in Delaware, prevailing along-shore ocean currents have transported that sand southward. (Above Bethany, the net flow of sand is north.)

The result, over centuries, was a long sand spit, connected to the south Delaware mainland and extending unbroken into Virginia. As recently as a few centuries ago, the sand spit had not reached Chincoteague, which was still on the oceanfront. Now, Chincoteague lies behind Assateague some five miles from the ocean.

Periodically, great storms, ei Periodically, great storms, either quick, fierce hurricanes or long, pounding nor'easters, sliced inlets through our sand spit, creating islands overnight, then reclosing the channels by natural filling -- sometimes in weeks, sometimes in years. Such an inlet existed for a while in the 1880s around the Maryland-Delaware line. It was then that the area known as Fenwick began to be called Fenwick Island.

All in all, the spit has had at least 11 full-fledged inlets. We think of such breaching as disasters, but the process actually is the very life support of our region's beaches, says Stephen P. Leatherman, a coastal geologist with the University of Maryland.

The islands for centuries have been slowly losing sand from their beach fronts as sea level rises. In the last century, the rate of rise has picked up dramatically, and Mr. Leatherman and others consequently forecast a future of ever-increasing flooding and erosion rates throughout the East Coast.

To compensate, to stay alive, the barrier islands migrate. They literally roll over themselves, in a process that relies on the ocean to drag and flush sand from half a mile or more offshore and deposit it across the breadth of the island. This enables the island, while losing ground on its oceanside, to rebuild on its rear, moving ever-westward.

While unbroken lines of sand dunes may be the natural beach of popular conception, they never were the norm along the Fenwick-Assateague spit, Mr. Leatherman says; rather, the natural state there tends more to be the flattened, overwashed beach, whose reassertion in the National Seashore's southern 10 miles in Maryland pleases naturalist Zimmerman.

That condition is unthinkable for Ocean City, which is anchored defiantly atop shoreline that wants to migrate. The final line of defense in the resort's new, pumped beach is an unbroken line of dunes, sculpted to Army Corps of Engineers specifications.


If anything links the past and future of the Fenwick-Assateague sand spit, it is storms -- and man's schemes to deny and defy them.

It was the monster coastal hurricane of August 1933 that gouged a 10-foot-deep cut through to Sinepuxent and Assawoman bays along what is now the southern limit of Ocean City. Left to its own, nature eventually would have resealed the new inlet; but the city prevailed on the Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize the channel with stone jetties. By 1935, for about a million dollars, the work was done, and by 1939 the city, with its new fishing harbor, was calling itself the White Marlin Capital of the World.

Of course, things are never quite "done" in the kinetic world of barrier beaches. The big jetty on the Ocean City side of the new inlet was like a dam across a flowing river -- in this case, the invisible southward flow of sand. The jetty began trapping huge quantities of sand, and the beaches below it began to starve and erode -- at a rate that went from a sedate few feet a year to a galloping 36 feet a year.

But if that was a problem, you wouldn't have known it then. By the 1950s the region and the nation were in love with notions of unlimited technological progress. It was an era of BigThink. We would dam the Amazon, make half of Brazil a lake and ring it with seaports. We would steamroller the Jersey Pine Barrens for a New York jetport covering hundreds of square miles. And we would turn the East Coast's barrier islands into an unrelieved playland from New Jersey to Florida.

Plans were made for bridges to Assateague and to dozens of other untamed sandy shores. A Maryland developer sold 5,850 lots on Assateague, some in the marsh and the surf zone. Baltimore department stores gave lots away as sales promotions.

Assateague had been recommended for federal protection in 1935, the same year the inlet project assured Ocean City's boomtown future. But a National Park Service study in 1955 concluded that Assateague was too far gone with subdivision to save. Then, in March 1962 came disaster and salvation -- the Ash Wednesday or "Five High" nor'easter, a storm whose winds piled five successive high tides, without subsidence, on the East Coast. The damage tolls exceeded $200 million -- several million for Ocean City alone. (Today, such a storm would cost the city hundreds of millions.)

But at Assateague, the storm turned the tide nature's way. Of some 50 homes constructed there, all but 11 were destroyed or damaged. Developers suddenly embraced a federal bailout in the form of National Seashore acquisition. By 1965 it was done.


But remember, things are never "done" when dealing with shifting sand and the sea. The Ocean City inlet continued to starve the northern end of the National Seashore, causing the dramatic offset, where Assateague today lies nearly 2,000 feet westward of the resort. In the last decade or two, the famine has spread south, threatening the 2-mile Assateague State Park that is inset on the National Seashore holdings.

It has become clear that the northern several miles of Assateague are not just migrating. The island here is dying, dissolving. The only "winner," at least in the short run, is the endangered little piping plover. Its favored nesting sites are in beach areas of maximum chaos, like northern Assateague, where habitat is so sparse that predators can't gain a toehold.

In the meantime, Ocean City and the public seashore to the south are finding their fates connected in yet another way. In the nearly 60 years since the inlet was stabilized, nature has never ceased trying to close it. The result is a crescent-shaped shoal that arcs thousands of yards from the mouth of the inlet almost to the tip of Assateague. The shoal contains an estimated 8 million cubic yards of sand -- equal to all that has been pumped in for the resort's refurbished beach. And just in the last few years the shoal has begun funneling vital new sand to the impoverished Assateague beaches.

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers, sooner than most had anticipated, has alerted Ocean City that the most accessible sand for beach replenishment will be exhausted in a few years. This has reinforced suspicions of experts like Mr. Leatherman and Orrin M. Pilkey, a Duke University expert on beach migration, that the Corps knows more about building beaches than keeping them replenished.

Mr. Pilkey, an outspoken critic of the Corps, thinks that long-run costs at Ocean City will be billions, not hundreds of millions, as sea level rises faster. There seems little doubt that the drain on the federal treasury, which foots more than half the bills for replenishment, could become enormous. The New York Times recently called Corps plans for future beach pumping along the East Coast the biggest public works project since the Panama Canal. For about 30 miles of New Jersey where beach pumping is beginning, 50-year costs of up to $91 million a mile are projected.

At Ocean City, the alternatives for the Corps include moving its pumping operation as much as five miles offshore, which would significantly increase the cost; and considering pumping from the shoal. Other systems of "back-passing" and "bypassing" sand from the inlet via a multimillion-dollar system of jet pumps and pipes are the subject of a Corps study that will take three years and cost $8 million.

Any possibility that the inlet shoal will be tampered with, just as it is helping to heal old wounds to Assateague, causes state and federal park officials to bristle. At the same time, both agencies also want to piggyback onto Ocean City's beach pumping. "Wild and natural" has its limits, even in a park dedicated to it, Carl Zimmerman says.

The north part of Assateague, even with healing help from the sand shoal, is too far gone to resuscitate without human help. As for the smaller state park, its mission in life -- somewhere between Ocean City's and the National Seashore's -- has dictated the bulldozing of sand into dunes, to protect a substantial infrastructure: big, paved motor-camper sites, bathhouses, food and souvenir stores. And last winter the ocean "was eating at the base of those dunes," says Denise MacNamara, a ranger-naturalist at the state park.


Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1943 on Assateague Island's lower 15 miles, seems supremely natural, with its great sweeps of dune, forest, marsh and ponds. But this part of the coastline is managed as closely as Ocean City, albeit for greener ends.

The ponds at the refuge include 4 square miles of artificial impoundments, where water levels are regulated seasonally to enhance habitat for waterfowl and a stunning variety of wading birds. Forest vegetation is controlled by periodic burning, to benefit rare Delmarva fox squirrels; even the large pond known as "F Pool" is stocked with crabs for recreational harvesters.

The refuge must artificially maintain its own line of dunes to fTC prevent flooding of fox squirrel habitat and to control water levels in the impoundments. "We value the natural, but we are trying to make up for habitat losses outside refuges, and we use management to do it," says John Schroer, head of the federal preserve.


What can one say about the future of the Fenwick-Assateague system? The only certain prediction is that unpredictable storms will continue to shape the course of both human and natural actions. Ocean City, all 3 billion dollars' worth, seems likely to get whatever it takes to keep it anchored. The real question may be: Who will pay the bills if they become staggering?

Scientific understanding of the connectedness of 47 miles of sand seems to be translating to political cooperation. Little more than a decade ago, the refuge and the national seashore "hated each others' guts and even actively tried to undermine one another at times," says Judy Johnson, founder of the private Committee to Protect Assateague. A mayor of Ocean City during that period once remarked about Ms. Johnson: "That woman has her island . . . tell her let me alone with mine!"

The tenants of Assateague now get along fine, Ms. Johnson says. And in Ocean City, Dennis Dare applauds a recent attempt by the Corps of Engineers to pull together a better understanding of the whole system: "We are aware," he says, "that all these problems -- beach erosion, filling of our back bays, wetlands degraded . . . -- are somehow linked. There are so many cooks in the kitchen, we need to finally get the recipe whole."

And finally, there is this footnote from Mr. Leatherman: For all that is said about the folly of humans trying to establish themselves on shifting sand, at least Ocean City and Assateague lie atop a huge base of sand. But the long chain of lovely island beaches to the south, nearly to North Carolina, are not just migrating, but "doomed," he says. "They are basically clumps of silt and clay, overlain by a veneer of sand, but without the volumes [of sand] needed to replenish themselves as sea level rises." And he believes that the Delaware beaches, too, are more vulnerable to erosion because their supplies of sand are more limited.

Ocean City, in other words, may have built in the best part of the worst place.

TOM HORTON is the environmental columnist for The Sun.

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