MARSHFIELD — Lounging on a cracked slab of concrete on a nearly sandless Brant Rock Beach Thursday, Katherine Collins recalled her first summers on the beach as a young mother more than 50 years ago.
It was just as sunny and just as beautiful, the 81-year-old summer resident said, but back then the beach was expansive, far more than the narrow ribbon of sand now nestled between the ocean and a mammoth sea wall, mostly obscured by large boulders and pebbles.
“My son would play in the sand; he would build sand castles,” she said. “Now you have to build a log cabin — out of rocks.”
The ocean has been eating way at beaches up and down the state for years, but last winter’s storms packed a powerful punch that has reminded town officials and residents just how tenuous their relationship with the sea is.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Collins said to the nodding of her two beachmates. “This isn’t 1959 anymore.”
Bruce Carlisle, director of the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management, said this past winter was a particularly severe storm season. First in October came Hurricane Sandy, then the February blizzard that buried the region, followed by a nor’easter in March.
They all took a toll on Marshfield and reshaped the town’s beaches, said Paul Halkiotis, the town’s planner.
Sand dunes moved, and beaches shrank.
He said the town does not officially keep track of the how much sand is lost at the beaches, but the town’s beach administrator, Cindy Castro, said the ocean gobbled up about 15 to 20 feet of sand at Green Harbor Beach to the south last winter.
“There is less dune, less beach,” she said.
Sand levels are volatile, and a beach can lose or gain 6 inches of sand in a day, Halkiotis said.
“It is amazing how much changes, on even a daily basis” he said. “This is something that is constant and relentless.”
And the slow erosion of sand is not helped by the town’s sea walls or revetments, the sloping structures that absorb the ocean’s energy revetments.
Marshfield built sea walls beginning in the 1930s to protect the town from the sea’s violence, but the walls have impeded the ocean’s natural process of replenishing beaches, said Jay Wennemer, the town’s conservation agent.
The walls block the ocean from grabbing sand off higher dunes and spreading it up and down the beach. That process naturally preserves the beach, he said.
The town has put up snow fences on some stretches of beach, in hope they catch and accumulate some sand.
The town is also trying to get whatever dredged material it can to replenish beaches, said Wennemer.
This year the town asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to dump dredged material it typically takes out into deeper waters on a beach near Blackman’s Point.
But no matter what actions humans take, it is hard to change nature’s ways.
“If you look at the glacial, epic period of time, the coast line just erodes,” he said. “The coast line recedes, and the water advances. It is a long-term story.”
It is a long story for Kevin Davis, too.
The 49-year-old has been coming to the beach since he was a child.
He bought a house here in 1999, when the beach had enough sand to allow him to walk out 400 feet and be in water only up to his waist.
Winter storms would take sand some years, but it usually returned in other years.
But after a series of bad storms in the mid-2000s, he said, the sand has diminished considerably.
“It was great, just all soft fluffy stuff,” he said walking his dog along Brant Rock Beach Thursday. “It is not going to be what it was.”