Plovers put dune work in high gear

A bulldozer with Cherenzia Excavation moves sand placed on the beach Wednesday by articulated haulers, not shown, while rebuilding the dunes that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in the Misquamicut beach area of Westerly.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day A bulldozer with Cherenzia Excavation moves sand placed on the beach Wednesday by articulated haulers, not shown, while rebuilding the dunes that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in the Misquamicut beach area of Westerly.

Westerly - Weighing little more than 2 ounces, piping plovers wield an inordinate amount of authority for their size.

Multi-ton dump trucks and bulldozers flee at just the possibility of their arrival. Workmen who think nothing of moving mountains of earth and rock bow to the tiny sandy-colored birds' nesting instincts and promptly get out of the way.

"I have to be done by April 1 because of the plovers. If they come, the Fish & Wildlife Service can shut me down," said Rob Ferrara, general superintendent for Cherenzia Excavation of Pawcatuck and leader of a crew restoring the Misquamicut beach dunes flattened by Hurricane Sandy last October. "We may be working until Saturday, but I'll be done."

Ferrara spoke last Wednesday, after four months of 10-hour days sifting, sorting and moving about 70,000 cubic yards of sand and debris thrown onto roads and parking lots by Sandy.

Janet Freedman, coastal geologist with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, said the contractors were given the choice of hiring a plover monitor or finishing by April 1, when the birds, afforded special protection because of their threatened species status, begin building nests in shoreline areas. Plovers wouldn't nest on Misquamicut beaches, she said, but might find the mounds of sand in the state beach parking lot attractive.

"The fear was that if the plovers nested in the sand piled in the parking lot, they wouldn't be able to move the sand until the birds fledged and the parking lot would have to be closed," she said.

The dune restoration was a joint project of the town and the state, and is costing about $700,000 that will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Steve Hartford, town manager. About 30,000 yards of sand went to recreate the dunes at the popular state beach, and the rest built dunes on the town and fire district beaches. Enough was left over to also afford the private cottages to the east of the public beaches a protective corridor of high sand.

"The most sensible thing to do was to put all that sand back on the beaches," Hartford said.

Freedman said the rebuilt dunes aren't considered a permanent solution to the threat of future storm surges but will provide a buffer for a few years, and enable the beaches to reopen this summer.

A future, larger project to enlarge the eroded beaches would probably involve dredging offshore, she said.

"If it were an undeveloped, natural beach, the best thing to do would be to let the beach migrate landward," she said.

But Misquamicut is "a manufactured shoreline," she said, and the dunes taken out by Sandy were built by human labor in the 1980s. To determine the best design for the new dunes, she said, her office studied aerial photographs from before the storm and determined the optimal angles and height for the sand.

"We wanted a nice, gradual gradient to the dune crest, so the waves will run up the dunes instead of slamming up against them," she said.

The specifications called for the dunes to be 14 feet high, with a 4-to-1 or 5-to-1 slope to the water, depending on the location, Ferrara said.

"It's really very simple, once you understand the slope," he said, standing atop one of the dunes as a truck left yet another load of sand a short distance away. Waves hitting a slope that's too steep, he said, would eat away large chunks of sand at once, causing the dunes to be undermined and collapse.

Snow fences or dune grass will help the fatten the dunes further by trapping sand and buffering strong winds, Freedman said. Dune grass may recolonize on its own in some areas and is being planted in others. But grass plants are in high demand all along the North Atlantic coastal areas struck by Sandy, so there won't be enough to replant all the Misquamicut dunes by this summer.

"Everybody's looking for dune grass, and the nurseries haven't been able to keep up," she said.

j.benson@theday.com

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