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Westerly - Plastic shovel in hand, 4-year-old Abigail Borchers scooped sand from a spot next to her parents' beach blanket one afternoon this week, too absorbed in the task at hand to consider how or why there came to be such an abundance of this favorite construction material for young excavators like herself.
"We were here last year once or twice," her father, Caleb, said, as he and his wife, Fran, watched their younger daughter, Elizabeth, toddle barerfoot nearby. "It is different this year. It's nice."
The Borchers family, of Providence, was enjoying the results of a $3.1 million, five-week restoration project completed May 31 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Misquamicut State Beach. The half-mile stretch of sand and surf, a favorite destination for Connecticut and Rhode Island residents alike, was replenished with 85,000 cubic yards of new sand, spread one truckload at a time between the surf and the sand dike that borders the parking lot, widening the beach by up to 100 feet in some areas, said Christopher Hatfield, project manager at the Army Corps' New England District office. The sand came from two quarries in Charlestown, R.I.
"This was the only beach we restored in Rhode Island," said Hatfield, explaining that the project was done at the request of the state Department of Environmental Management, made possible with Superstorm Sandy recovery funds. "We trucked in 117,000 tons of sand and dumped it to mimic the original profile of what was there."
Brian Porter, 22, of Mansfield noticed the change when he came with some friends to the beach last week, his first visit of the summer.
"Last summer I came here and it was all wrecked up," he said, referring to damage still visible from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. "Now it looks good."
Hatfield said the Army Corps' goal - beyond just restoring the beach to what it looked like before Sandy tore through - was to return the beach to what it looked like in 1960, just after the Army Corps' first major project there, essentially creating the beach most people have come to know.
Before that, summer cottages occupied 50-square-foot lots on a small natural beach, said Janet Freedman, coastal geologist with the state's Coastal Resources Management Council. In the mid-1950s, after the destruction of the cottages and other damage from a series of hurricanes beginning with the one in 1938, the area was condemned by the state and taken for a public park. But after the Army Corps completed the project in 1960 - when it brought in 80,000 cubic yards of new sand - the forces of nature still wouldn't leave the beach alone.
"There had been significant erosion over the years," Hatfield said. Tons of sand had washed away, leaving the beach "about half as wide as it was originally."
Terms of the grant, he said, required that it be justified as a good investment in terms of preserving economic assets. By putting more sand between properties and the water, he said, nearby homes and businesses will be protected from future storms as the wider beach is better able to absorb flooding and storm surge.
"By putting the beach back, that's damage we've averted," he said.
The project benefits not only beachgoers, Town Manager Michele Buck said.
"We're very excited about the work done at the state beach," she said. "It benefits the whole town and the business owners."
One of those business owners is Town Councilor Caswell Cooke, owner of the Seafood Haven restaurant and executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association. Cooke said local shops, restaurants and hotels are anticipating being busier this season because of the wider beach.
"Now we can accommodate more people at the beach," he said. "Over the years, at extreme high tide, it's been shoulder to shoulder in some places."
The beach has been narrowing not only as the sand has eroded, but also as the sea has risen with climate change, he said.
How long before all that sand erodes away again? That's one of the questions Bryan Oakley, assistant professor in the Environmental Earth Science Department at Eastern Connecticut State University is attempting to answer. Soon after the Army Corps' project was completed, he began visiting Misquamicut to take cross-sectional measurements at five locations along the state beach, and will continue collecting data at least through the summer of 2015. He and teams of his students also are collecting data on the high-tide swash - the water that flows over a beach after a wave has broken.
Ultimately, he said, the information could be used to help inform future decisions about beach reconstruction after storms, as well as to help scientists and coastal planners better understand how the shoreline naturally changes.
"This is one of the first big beach replenishment projects on the south shore (of Rhode Island), and we wanted to see how long the sand hangs out, and how the beach responds to storms," he said. "So every few weeks, we go and collect beach profiles, and calculate the volumes of sand at particular sites."