SANDWICH — A surge of seawater during last month’s nor’easter demolished the town’s recently rebuilt dunes, dumped heaps of sand in a tidal marsh, and blocked the flow of a creek into the sea. The onslaught forced the closure of a portion of Route 6A, damaged septic systems, wrecked staircases, and led Sandwich authorities to condemn more than a dozen seaside homes.
Last week, local officials declared a state of emergency as a result of the erosion of its beaches, which residents say has put hundreds of millions of dollars of local real estate at risk of being flooded, including the historic downtown of Cape Cod’s oldest town.
Rising seas and more powerful storms have taken a toll on the town’s coast for decades, but residents aren’t blaming climate change. Their homes are at risk of being swallowed by Cape Cod Bay, they say, because of a major federal project that has impeded the natural flow of sand and starved their beaches.
They blame the US Army Corps of Engineers, as well as town officials, for failing to fix what they say is an obvious consequence of the construction of the Cape Cod Canal, a vital passage to Buzzards Bay that opened in 1914. Two jetties at the mouth of the canal, which have been extended several times, were designed to block much of the southeastern flow of sand so the 7-mile channel wouldn’t have to be dredged as often.
They propose a straightforward solution: They say the sand that has built up Scusset Beach north of the jetties should be transported regularly to Sandwich’s beaches.
“We’re in a crisis situation that’s the result of the chronic neglect of our beaches for decades,” said Irene Davis, who owns a 750-square-foot cottage on Town Neck Beach and is president of a local advocacy group called the Trustees of Sandwich Beaches.
About $335 million in property along the beach and marsh, worth about $4.6 million in tax revenue, is at risk, she said.
“I’m not just worried that we’re going to lose our home,” Davis said. “If nothing happens, I think we’re going to lose our town.”
Sandwich officials say they’re doing what they can, but they said moving sand is expensive and requires a range of permits, which take time to obtain. They’ve also been seeking state and federal grants, as well as aid from the Corps.
They recently spent $71,000 trying to repair a network of protective dunes. Most of those were washed away in the blizzard, and much of the sand ended up in Mill Creek, clogging a waterway that until last month streamed through the town’s tidal marsh into the ocean. The town is spending another $45,000 to reopen the creek.
“We’ve been working on [the erosion problem] for a long time,” said George Dunham, town manager of Sandwich. He added that the town’s emergency declaration helps homeowners secure permits to rebuild and add sand to protect their properties.
But, Dunham said, “people who buy homes on the beach have to know that they get inherent risks with the inherent beauty.”
Some residents have argued that they shouldn’t have to pay for sand to protect the homes of wealthy residents living on the beach. But Dunham said it’s now clear that the erosion has become a problem affecting many of the town's 21,000 residents.
He said hundreds of homes are in danger of losing property to future storms and downtown businesses and town offices, such as the police department, are at risk of being flooded.
He worries that the town’s marshland soon will be taken over by the bay. “That would leave us with no buffer against bigger storms,” Dunham said. “We wouldn’t just be vulnerable to storms; we’d be vulnerable to high tides.”
The question he and other officials raise is how residents should pay for the work.
The town’s short-term solution is to bolster the beaches with tons of sand from the bottom of the canal, which the Corps plans to dredge this fall. The more expensive long-term plan would involve bringing in much more sand, lengthening the beach by more than 200 feet, and creating a 100-foot berm.
Both plans are awaiting separate studies by the Corps. The first, slated to be completed this fall, will determine whether the federal government should subsidize providing the town sand dredged from the canal. If the study finds in the town’s favor, residents would still have to spend more than $500,000, about one-third of the cost of its short-term plan.
The other study, which could take three years to complete and won’t start until the first is done, will determine whether the federal government is responsible for the erosion and whether it should cover some or all of the expenses of the long-term plan, which the town estimates would cost about $10 million.
Michael Riccio, the project manager overseeing the dredging of the canal for the Corps, couldn’t say why it has taken so long for the Corps to study the problem, but he said a study is required to determine whether the 2,500-foot jetty is responsible for the deterioration of the town’s beaches.
“Erosion is a very complex problem,” he said. “We haven’t identified all the causes and effects of those jetties. Erosion isn’t isolated to manmade structures.”
As they wait to hear from the Corps, local residents are debating whether to use local revenue from the town’s meals tax, dip into the community preservation fund, issue bonds, or find another way to pay for repairing the beaches.
Members of the Trustees of Sandwich Beaches, one of whom is Boston Globe chief executive Michael Sheehan, say the town should use money from the meals tax.
“The town needs the money right now to be able to do something, and the meals tax would allow the town to do that,” said Bill Boles, secretary of the Trustees.
But Selectwoman Susan James said dipping into the meals tax to pay for the work “would set an extremely bad precedent and open the door for other groups with different special interests to do the same.”
No matter how the town ends up covering its costs, town officials and advocates agree that something should be done soon so that Sandwich doesn’t lose all its sand.
Among those seeking action is Paul Schneider, a retired firefighter who over the past four decades has watched the ocean creep ever closer to his modest ranch, claiming about 250 feet of his yard, destroying his deck several times, flooding his basement, and burying his cars in sand.
“We’ve been warning the town for years this was going to happen,” said Schneider, 71, who lost a furnace, hot water heater, generator, and other valuables when his basement flooded during the January blizzard, which came two years after another winter storm left his 1,300-square-foot home on Town Neck Beach in tatters. “What’s happened has been devastating.”