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State aims to return the beach to Nantasket

Some of the debris from the storms that ravaged Nantasket Beach in March.
Some of the debris from the storms that ravaged Nantasket Beach in March.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

HULL -- The March storms that cascaded wild waves over the sea walls at Nantasket Beach left behind a mess of rocks and debris scattered over the beach and adjacent parking lot, and clogged the stairways and ramps leading to the water.

Maintenance crews have cleared the parking lot, but the cratered beach and access ways are still littered with pebbles, gravel, big stones, and the occasional boulder. And at high tide, the sandy stretch of beach practically disappears.

Piles of rocks blocked an entrance to Nantasket Beach in April.
Piles of rocks blocked an entrance to Nantasket Beach in April.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

The situation is why the state wants to dump up to 700,000 cubic yards of sand at the state-owned portion of Nantasket in an effort to widen the beach and decrease the pounding impact of waves on the shore, especially during storms.

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It's a revival of an old idea that never came to fruition. But if it gets the green light this time, the "beach nourishment" would give beachgoers another 300 feet of sandy beach at high tide, according to a report by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees the regional beachgoer mecca that attracts some 200,000 summer visitors annually.

The department touts the "storm damage reduction project" as both a recreational and economic boon for the area, with "negligible" adverse effects on the marine ecosystem. The work would cost an estimated $14 million and last about nine to 15 years, or more, depending on future weather events, the agency says.

Much of the sand would come from the Piscataqua River, on the Maine-New Hampshire border, which is scheduled to be dredged soon by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps recently asked for proposals nationwide for "beneficial use" use of dredged material, and will choose 10 pilot projects from the 94 proposals it received, including the one for Nantasket Beach, according to its press release.

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"It's a great idea," said Hull's conservation administrator, Chris Krahforst. "It's virgin sand that hasn't been contaminated in any respect and probably predates mankind. It's an attempt to return the beach to historic volumes, when it had much more sand in the past."

Krahforst said the dredged sand is coarser and less liable to wash away than the current beach covering. It's also slightly lighter in color with a faint yellow tinge, he said, referring to a Tupperware container in his office that's filled with the stuff.

"This certainly would be helpful," Town Manager Philip Lemnios said of the state's proposal. "The town is supportive of the effort."

The idea of "nourishing" Nantasket with imported sand has been around for decades -- the first study was done in 1949 -- but it has never gotten off the ground. And Army Corps spokesman Gene Pawlik said no money has been allocated yet for the current raft of proposals, and no timeline set for when any work would begin in the future.

In fact, while preliminary recommendations are expected by the end of June, the Army Corps has up to two years to evaluate the submissions and pick the final 10 projects, Pawlik said. "This is not something that will happen in the next 30 or 60 days," he said.

But this new initiative is being taken seriously.

The Hull Conservation Commission recently scheduled a public hearing to brief residents on the plan and let them see samples of the Piscataqua River fill.

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"The results from chemical and physical tests show this material to be highly compatible for Nantasket Beach," the commission said in a notice about the meeting.

Specifics of the plan call for bringing the sand by barge to a site 2,600 feet offshore. The sand would then be pumped onto the ocean floor, starting in the southern corner of the beach and working north.

By the end of the process, the extra sand would extend along 6,800 feet of coastline, raising the level of the beach as well as its width.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation report says that, in geologic terms, Nantasket Beach is a "complex tombolo" made from eroded glacial deposits and relatively stable except in big storms, when the added sand would help absorb and lessen the pounding of the waves on the shore.

"The dredged material placed as beach nourishment would recreate a coastal high tide beach that would cause the waves to break over 100 feet from the sea wall, significantly reducing flooding from the overtopping of the sea wall," said department spokesman Troy Wall.

In addition, the agency is strengthening the sea wall at Nantasket, bringing in massive amounts of crushed stone and granite slabs and covering them with sand, he said.

For its part, the town is dealing with major erosion to the man-made dunes along its beaches from Phipps Street to X Street, planting dune grass and replacing sand in some areas, according to town officials.

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Krahforst said Hull also is considering applying for a grant to look into bringing in sand for a major rebuilding of the dune system.

While replenishing beaches with new sand is uncommon in this area, it's a common practice in other parts of the country, particularly in Florida. And the first big beach nourishment project was in New York, in the 1920s, when the shoreline was expanded at Brooklyn's Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

Rob Gilman, a member of Hull's Beach Management Committee, said he's skeptical that a big beach nourishment project will happen in Hull. But he's not convinced it's dead on arrival, since there is federal money available and a large amount of usable sand relatively nearby.

"It's hard to believe it's ever going to happen," Gilman said. "This is something that's been talked about and modeled for a long time, and very expensive. [But] if all the stars align just right, we may have a project sometime in our lifetime."

The state hopes to “nourish” Nantasket Beach with dredged sand.
The state hopes to “nourish” Nantasket Beach with dredged sand.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Nantasket Beach had a lot more sand in July 2013 ...
Nantasket Beach had a lot more sand in July 2013 ...(Globe Staff/File)
... and in May 2017.
... and in May 2017.(Globe Staff/File)
Crowds enjoying a sandy Nantasket Beach on June 25, 1980.
Crowds enjoying a sandy Nantasket Beach on June 25, 1980.(Globe Staff/File)

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.