The global sand shortage is reaching the crisis stage in some parts of the world, and there are manifestations of it here in Camden too. Until about 120 years ago Camden had a lot more sand in the harbor, presenting a significant challenge to the roughly 1,200 ships that were reported to be entering the harbor annually, according to a report from June 1872.

But today, you’re hard pressed to find an easy to access sandy beach without resorting to the internet.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to multiple projects to remove somewhere around 100,000 cubic yards of sand and mud between the 1870s and mid-1890s. This cleared the way for big ships to come and go from a harbor that used to be nearly dry at low tide.

Camden before the inner harbor was dredged for the first time in 1875 and the proliferation of buildings on top of the river blocked the view of the Harbor from Main Street. At that point we had too much sand (note it is nearly dry at low tide), but we may soon have the opposite problem.

It was viewed at the time as essential to economic and progress, and it was. Large vessels were being caught up on sand bars for days, many of them carrying salt and coal and needing to be unloaded in order to free them. Even smaller vessels were being damaged at times.

All of Camden Harbor used to be a shallow, sandy beach with its perimeter defined by a combination of coastal bluffs and heavily weathered bedrock outcroppings. You would have been able to walk the entire shoreline at all tides, jumping up onto bedrock as needed to get above the water line. And there was no shortage of fine sand to soften the jagged and irregular rock formations.

Much of Sherman’s Cove still has a sandy beach that closely resembles the one that was promoted in tourism books at the end of the 19th century, but accessing the sandy part requires walking over a long stretch of treacherous rocks where the once inexhaustible sandy shoals have retreated. Today, Sherman’s Cove has three public access points — only one with reasonable accommodations — but you can see what I mean if you park at Marine Avenue and take a left at the bottom of the steps.

Sandy Sherman’s Cove is subjected to considerable wave action. The shoreline is armored to prevent erosion of the property around this private pier.

 

The area of Sherman’s Cove with the longest standing sea walls has become rocky as it is cut off from one of its sources of sediment.

 

A sandy area of Sherman’s Cove.

There’s still a world class sandy beach in much of the cove, but most people don’t get to enjoy it.

Some of us even go to Rockport, just for that little bit of extra fine sand.

Laite Beach counts as a sandy beach too, but the sand doesn’t quite compare to the tiny patch of natural beach created by an eroding coastal bluff next to the Harbor Master’s Office in Rockport Marine Park. It is one of the few spots where a sliver of shoreline has been left mostly natural, but we may not have it forever.

High tide submerges the beach in its entirety, and as the sea continues to rise, the amount of beach exposed at low tide will get smaller and smaller. And it’s not just that. The sand on our beaches is created largely by the slow and persistent erosion of mountains and coastal bluffs, but as more and more of the coastline is armored to prevent property loss from sea level rise, the sand that is displaced by wave action has no way of being replenished.

In California, Florida, and many other places, beach renourishment is already a common and controversial practice, and many states are beginning to impose restrictions on the hardening or armoring of shorelines, recognizing that the cumulative impacts of allowing private property owners to stop erosion on their own shoreline is wreaking havoc on public beaches.

Sand is second only to water in terms of the natural resources that are most heavily mined or otherwise extracted. It is the main ingredient in glass and concrete and forms the backbone of the silicon used in many electronics. The global demand for sand is so intense that entire beaches are being stolen and riverbeds ripped up to extract it. Unfortunately, desert sand is unsuitable for use in concrete due to its lack of binding ability.

The sand on our beaches generally comes from the transport of mountain sediments from rivers and this is the stuff that is valuable as massive building projects are creating an insatiable demand for concrete, especially in developing countries. Just google it: global sand crisis.

But sand does more than provide building materials and make for a nice day at the beach. It’s crucial to preventing further erosion and buffering from storm surge. It also provides significant habitat and ecological benefits.

No one is stealing our sand and selling it to the concrete market or spreading it on beaches in Florida, but we would still be wise to reexamine what value it has to us before it’s too late.

We have a complicated relationship with erosion control and sediment management. In some ways, human accelerated erosion is a major threat in Camden and the Midcoast, as massive landscaping and building projects tend to have insufficient erosion control in place to hold up during more frequent extreme rain events. This is most certainly a problem, especially in freshwater ecosystems, but also for parts of the Harbor exposed to stormwater outfalls that smother small organisms with uncontrolled sediment.

An unimproved public access point sits between two properties with shoreline armoring on either side of Harbor Road.

However, we are also facing the opposite problem if we decide that our beaches are in fact worth preserving. Sea walls and other forms of hardened shorelines to prevent erosion are slowly changing the coast, forming a rigid boundary along a shoreline that has been moving since time immemorial.

As the sea rises, the shoreline can no longer migrate inland, the natural erosive process is stopped, and shorelines that were once soft and gradual become hard and vertical.

This is one of the problems with piers. In addition to the actual pier structure, they almost always come with significant shoreline stabilization, rip rap, and sometimes concrete. In Camden’s inner Harbor, the sea wall at Harbor Park was initially placed far enough back that there would still be a grounding out space for large vessels to be worked on. The water was too dirty back then to encourage it as a public beach, but that’s what we got. We enjoy the Harbor Park intertidal zone today for a much different purpose than was intended.

Today, it’s one of the few downtown locations where you can see a true rocky intertidal zone and the full fluctuation of the tides. But as the high tides get higher, so too do the low tides, and the intertidal zone in the middle (also our public beach) is squeezed into a smaller and smaller space.

This is of course inevitable in some places. Deep water access and built-up wharves are here to stay and an important part of our economic vibrancy, but we should also think about what value our beaches have or don’t have and plan accordingly.

I’ve been trying to get in the habit of asking myself what different beaches and intertidal zones would look like at low and mid tides under different sea level rise scenarios. For places like Sherman’s Cove, where the slope is so gradual, it doesn’t take much change in water level to submerge a lot of beach. If we allow all of it to be hardened with sea walls, we may eventually be faced with the loss of one of our only sandy beaches.

We all worry about losing special places from poorly planned changes, but we tend to forget about the changes that are happening gradually whether we plan for them or not.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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