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A tale of two beaches
Rehoboth-Dewey rebound; erosion plagues Cape Henlopen

Sussex Bureau reporter

Rehoboth Beach City Manager Greg Ferrese sent his beach cleaner out Thursday morning to get ready for what he expects will be a busy weekend. There is plenty of sand to groom this year.

"We're going into season with a pretty good beach," he said. So are beach towns south to Fenwick Island after a fall and winter with few major coastal storms. Even Hurricane Isabel caused little lasting erosion of the Delaware shoreline.

Conditions today contrast sharply with the hard winter of 2002-2003 that badly eroded beaches, shrinking space for sunbathers and kicking off a horrible spring tourist season of chilly rainy days.

So far, sunny skies, temperatures in the 70s and 80s and a bigger beach already are drawing midweek visitors. Ferrese expects the predicted sunny, mid-80s weather to draw thousands to his town on Saturday. A beach volleyball league competition will add to the draw.

"We're well ahead of the game," said Anthony P. Pratt, the state shoreline and waterway manager. "Everything looks pretty good" from Rehoboth south.

Things look less promising to the north, however, particularly at Cape Henlopen State Park.

Serious erosion there has Pratt concerned enough to be drafting remedial plans that include overriding the state's policy of not bringing in sand to rebuild beaches in state parks to carving notches through six jetties extending into the ocean from Rehoboth north to Henlopen.

The walk from the dune to the high water mark on the sand is a mere 30 strides. Two wooden jetties stand six feet above the sand. At low tide, the remnants of an old cedar forest rise from damp sand at Herring Point, with clumps of deep brown peat from the old forest floor poking above the sand.

"It's definitely an eroding beach," Pratt said. The beach should recover some over the next few weeks with favorable winds and surf conditions.

Surfer Joe Jelks of Lewes said he also expects the beach to rebound somewhat if no major storms pass through. "It's pretty dynamic," he said.

But Pratt thinks the state needs to do something to help nature along before erosion threatens the forest and, possibly, remnants of Fort Miles, the coastal observation and artillery complex used during World War II. State park officials are in the process of restoring some of the old military features, including several stone towers, as a new tourist attraction.

Pratt is preparing recommendations on what the state can do about the erosion, which has been a problem for decades as sand moving north along the shore shapes and changes the ever-moving point at Cape Henlopen.

Pratt said one option would be to place new sand on the beach to help stabilize the area. That could be controversial because the state has a policy against placing fill on state park beaches, preferring to let nature take its course.

Another would be to rehabilitate the wooden and stone groin structures that run perpendicular to the beach and trap sand as it slides north to bolster beach recovery.

A more involved option would be to cut out notches in six groins to the south. Four are maintained by the state, but two are privately owned by the town of Henlopen Acres and the private community of North Shores. State officials would have to seek permission to notch them if they pursue that option.

At a recent hearing on plans to repair the groin at North Shores, a coastal scientist who works in New Jersey said that notching has helped stem the rate of erosion along some New Jersey beaches.

Notching also could allow Cape Henlopen to indirectly benefit from a $15 million beach restoration project for Rehoboth and Dewey beaches expected to start sometime after the summer season. Some of that sand could resettle to the north if the six groins are notched.

The project to be supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will pump more than a million cubic yards of sand from offshore onto the beaches from the north end of Rehoboth Beach south through Dewey Beach.

The rebuilt beach will measure 290 feet wide in Rehoboth and 360 feet wide in Dewey. In recent years, the Rehoboth beach has been from 75 to 100 feet wide.

The condition of the beach is critical for Delaware's resort towns.

"The beach is absolutely the draw," said Carol Everhart, executive director of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. "The beach is why they are here, why they are coming, why so many people want to live here."

Rehoboth Beach 2002

Rehoboth Beach 2004
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