By Angeljean Chiaramida
SALISBURY BEACH — Sand, more so than even than the salty waves that lap the shore, is the mother's milk of oceanfront resort communities.
Without it, children don't splash by the water's edge and families don't build sand castles. Frolicking by the seaside simply isn't possible.
At Salisbury Beach, as in other parts of the coast, sand is a beloved but disloyal companion. It leaves when times get rough, when tides and rain and wind suck or chase it out to sea.
It sometimes returns over calmer months little by little, working its way back to the almost four-mile stretch of oceanfront beach that gives Salisbury Beach its sense of self.
What isn't returned flees south, some caught by Salisbury's north jetty, some finding its way into the Merrimack River and some traveling onward, never to be caught or seen again — at least not in Salisbury.
Like Plum Island, Salisbury's beach and dunes have been both growing and shrinking, as sand gets pushed to and fro. Unfortunately for Salisbury Beach, state officials say the overall trend is beach loss.
All that separates Salisbury Beach from Plum Island is the mouth of the Merrimack River. But there are some major differences between the two, manmade and otherwise, that make Salisbury's battle to protect its beach unique.
Selectman Ed Hunt, 65, grew up on the beach. His father and uncle earned their livings there, as did he and now does his son. He didn't really notice the full impact of sand erosion until less than two decades ago, he said, after becoming an attentive grandfather.
"There was always plenty of sand when I was growing up," Hunt said. "The beach was fine as we took our kids to the beach. It was about 15 years ago when I really noticed (the erosion), when we took my grandson to the beach. We got out of the car at Vermont Street and headed toward the beach. When we got there, I looked at my wife and I said, 'Barbara, where's the beach?'"
Hunt and scores of other Salisbury summer and year-round residents can tell hundreds of stories about the plentiful beach they played on and enjoyed in bygone days, when Salisbury Beach hummed with beachfront resorts that drew thousands of tourists. And they can tell more stories still about the yards of beach that no longer exist.
Their recollections are backed up by data gathered by the state's Office of Coastal Zone Management's Historic Shoreline Change Project, which has been tracking the changes all along the Massachusetts coast. The map displays some general trends — for instance, the entire beach grew from the 1950s through the late 1970s, in some areas by as much as 150 feet. But the Blizzard of 1978 started a general cascade of erosion all along the beach.
The CZM map also makes it clear that the worst-hit areas are along the southern end of the beach. For example:
r In front of the old pavilion at Salisbury Beach Reservation, the beach shrunk by 188 feet between 1928 and 1994. The year 1994 is the most recent data year.
r A half mile to the north, at the Beach Center, the beach eroded 103 feet from 1928 through 1994.
r At the Seabrook, N.H., line, the beach grew 167 feet between 1912 and 1994.
Erosion isn't strange for a barrier beach like Salisbury, according to Tom Hughes, chairman of Salisbury's Conservation Commission and owner of Hughes Environmental Consulting.
"A barrier beach is a dynamic system; it's always moving," Hughes said. "Barrier beaches stay healthy by moving. Houses aren't dynamic; they're static. You have erosion when the beach wants to move and the houses don't."
Salisbury Beach is much more densely developed than Plum Island. On the island, most homes stand on lots that are at least 4,900 square feet. On Salisbury Beach, many lots are half, or even a quarter of, that size, and houses are tightly packed together.
Sand in Salisbury is usually lost during storms and during the winter months, Hughes said. A good portion stays close to shore, gathering in a sandbar that gives the sand back a little at a time in deposits left by waves as they wash to shore during the spring and summer. But some sand is lost forever, he said, making its way south to places unknown and to places nearby, such as the Merrimack River, which is dredged periodically to open it up to navigation.
"I think it's time for CZM to gather more data on the beach for years after 1994," Hughes said. "We can't use short-term data to predict long-term erosion rates. You need long periods of time to estimate the long-term erosion rate."
CZM coastal geologist and hazard coordinator Rebecca Haney said erosion and accretion along Salisbury's shoreline — as in other coastline areas — varies a good deal. Much depends on the energy of the waves and their direction and the condition of the offshore sandbar that — when healthy — can dissipate the energy of the waves before they hit the beach.
"In order for a beach to sustain itself and not erode, there needs to be a certain volume of sediment (sand) feeding the system," Haney said. "The primary source of sand for Salisbury and Plum Island is an offshore delta formed when the glaciers melted. That delta has been depleted, and not as much sediment in coming back onto the beach."
Haney said CZM hopes to do a regional sediment study to track sediment movement and produce a long-term sediment management plan. An update of the shoreline changes since 1994 is something CZM would like to do through aerial photography, she said. That and the sediment study need funding in the state budget before they can happen.
In addition to the depletion of the offshore glacial delta, Haney said, sea-level rises have also been responsible for problems at Salisbury beach. The historic rise of sea level is about 1 foot per hundred years, Haney said.
"That sea level rise also puts pressure on barrier beaches and causes the beach to try to shift landward," Haney said.
Also to be taken into consideration is weather and the frequency, severity, direction and duration of storms, she said.
Taken as a whole, Haney said, the net change and result for Salisbury Beach currently is a state of erosion.
Hughes agrees with Haney. There are areas of erosion along the beach, he said, especially along the south end at Atlantic Avenue. It was the area most severely affected last year during the three-day storm that started on Patriots Day, he said.
Hughes and the Conservation Commission ordered the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns all the seaside land on Salisbury Beach from the dunes to the waves, to develop a long-term maintenance plan for Salisbury Beach as one of the conditions for the emergency permit it granted DCR last year after the Patriots Day storm. The permit allowed DCR to truck in 20,000 cubic yards of sand to shore up teetering homes along Atlantic Avenue, as well as repair public pathways to the beach, which had lost so much sand they were dangerous to the public.
Hughes said DCR is overdue in filing its required long-term beach maintenance plan with the commission, something he hopes will soon be remedied.
Hughes told selectmen recently he's hoping the plan will include emergency plans for the beach, such as stockpiling sand for use to fortify the beach during storms, he said.
"What we need is sand stockpiled for the next crisis," Hughes said. "Sandbags aren't going to help much. We need truckloads to put in front of houses."
There's at least one major manmade difference between Salisbury Beach and Plum Island. On Plum Island, the dunes and beaches in front of cottages are privately owned. On Salisbury Beach, the state has owned the dunes and beach since 1933 and is responsible for managing it.
That arrangement has placed the state's policy on beaches squarely in the crosshairs of Salisbury Beach landowners and local officials.
Given the state's investment in the beach and the beach's economic potential as a tourism resort, Massachusetts has been "reactive not proactive," when it has come to preserving the sandy resource under its supervision, Hunt said. He and others have called the state a "neglectful landlord."
Many locals point to the state's handling of damage done during last year's Patriots Day floods as an example of the state's lack of response. Many homes lost their protective dunes, and several were perched perilously close to the edge of the beach. Residents pleaded with the state to rebuild the dunes, to no avail.
State officials argued the cost was too high, and the environmental impact of trucks and bulldozers on the beach might be harmful.
That led to a showdown that pitted the area's two state lawmakers — state Sen. Steve Baddour and Rep. Michael Costello — against the state agency that manages the beach, the DCR. Both Baddour and Costello harshly criticized the agency's bureaucracy and lack of response and demanded action be taken.
"Trying to coordinate these agencies to take major steps to stop the erosion is just mind-boggling," Costello said at the time. "The permitting blows your mind."
The agency eventually brought in 20,000 cubic yards of sand, rebuilding dunes that had been lost.
And behind the scenes, there have been other changes that Salisbury officials see as signs of a changing relationship with the state. Gov. Deval Patrick shook up the agency's top management.
Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said in years past DCR hasn't practiced preventative care of the beach but has responded to Salisbury's needs in reaction to crises. But, he added, he's seen a chance recently, with the coming of DCR's new Commissioner Richard Sullivan Jr., appointed by Patrick last year to take over the reins of the agency.
It was Sullivan who ordered the 20,000 cubic yards of sand be trucked onto the southern portion of Salisbury Beach to shore up homes in danger of collapsing because of the erosion the storm caused. Harrington said his dealings with Sullivan since then have been productive.
"Commissioner Sullivan has come down here to look at our issues, and he understands them," Harrington said in a recent interview. "He was a mayor himself (of Westfield) and really understands the local point of view."
For more information on erosion along the Massachusetts coastline, visit the following link on the state's Office of Coastal Zone Management Web site: www.mass.gov/czm/hazards/shoreline_change/shorelinechangeproject.htm.
Statistics on Salisbury Beach
r The state accepted the certificate of title for Salisbury Beach on June 10, 1933
r It includes 167.2 acres along 3.49 miles of beach
r The state paid Salisbury $233,767 in payment in lieu of taxes for the land last year and $208,054 the prior year.
r Along the oceanfront, there are 250 parcels of private land (this does not include any lots at the beach that do not directly front the ocean).
r Those 250 parcels are valued at $202 million and represent about 13 percent of Salisbury's property tax revenue.
r In comparison, the assessed value of all of Salisbury's commercial property comes to about 15 percent of property tax revenue.
SOURCE: Salisbury Assessor's Office