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Nature Builds the Best Beaches

Land &Water/September/October 1995

"That's a real pretty beach, don't you think?" asks La Verne "Chub" Thorsen, as he points down to a 50 foot-wide ribbon of sand at the base of the 95 foot-high bluff on which he stands. To his left are the powdery-blue waters of Lake Michigan. To his right are his five Scotland Yard Vacation Cottages, near Manistee, Michigan, in the heart of Coho Country.

"Up until two years ago, there wasn't any sand down there, nothing but a bunch of rocks and boulders," Chub continues. "But, just look at it now. Sometimes, even I have had a hard time believing it could change so fast."

"You probably won't believe this," he says, "but back then, I'd lose three to four feet of this bluff every year because the waves would undercut the bank and the dirt would fall into the lake. I've had to move the fence back three times, but I don't expect to ever have to move it again now that the problem has been fixed."

Almost a hundred miles further north along the Lake Michigan shore, at Cathead Point near Grand Traverse Bay, we walked along a 200 foot-wide beach of gleaming white sand. Ten years ago, there was no beach here, only six foot high boulders sticking out of water slapping at a caving-in bank. Owners of a house sitting on the edge of the bank were advised by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to move the house because nothing could be done to keep it from being toppled into the lake.

Now, ten years later, however, the house still stands on its original foundation, safe from any more bank caving. Sand has built up at least 15 feet deep next to the bank and beach grasses have taken hold, anchoring the dry sand. More than that, the lake bottom outward from the water's edge is building up with sand, making it more shallow, gently sloping, warmer, and improving the habitat for fish and other marine life.

Some 300 miles south, near the Michigan-Illinois state line, we visit another excellent example of a "nature-built" beach at New Buffalo, Michigan.

October, 1983, prior to treatment with Undercurrent Stabilizers. The beach had been destroyed by nearby navigational channels. September, 1990, seven years after treatment, the beach continues to expand naturally.

Before 1983, the answer to the beach and bluff erosion problems here had been futile and wasted expenditures of anti-wave, deep-water defense constructions such as rock revetments, seawalls, elevated groins, riprap and throwaway junk. These attempts not only failed to correct the problems, but had actually so damaged the bluffs that homes above it were unsalable and in danger of toppling into the lake. So much bluff had eroded away that a swimming pool teetered precariously on the lip of the bluff, ready to plunge down into the lake at any moment. There was no sand, no beach, only continuing destruction, danger and despair for the owners.

Today, there is a 200 foot-wide beach at the foot of the 75 foot-high, sloping and vegetated bluff. Above it sit homes valued in the million dollar range. The Knasny brothers, homeowners on the bluff, say without reservation, "our new beach buildup is the greatest thing ever to happen since we moved here many years ago."

What Made the Sand Come Back?

These three examples of restored beaches, and hundreds of others, are the result of the pioneering erosion control research and development work of Dick Holmberg of Whitehall, Michigan. As the founder of Holmberg Technology, he has battled shoreline erosion and its bureaucracy for more than 30 years. He has been involved in the design and construction of more than 1,500 projects along the Great Lakes, inland waterways and ocean coastal zones.

Holmberg is considered the pioneer on accretion-based shoreline restoration technology. He has been granted a number of patents for his beach restoration technology which is responsible for more than 100 restored beaches along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Holmberg uses a sand filter system that mimics nature's own beach-building characteristics.

"The systems get the same results as artificial beach nourishment, but without disturbing the natural ecology of the ocean or sea bottom," says Holmberg. "An additional benefit is that it does not require extremely expensive, continual replenishment with dredged fill to maintain the beach."

The Holmberg system includes a geomass template designed to recontour a deficit profile (one that loses sand) into a shallow, gently sloping accretion profile (one that gains sand). Each system is an interlocked network of concrete-filled geotextile bags that extend like long "arms" perpendicular to the base of the bank or bluff. The low profile arms, submerged offshore, act as speedbumps for sand-carrying water currents.

The arms are attached to a similar geotextile form that is laid parallel to the base of the bluff. This blunts the blows of crashing waves against the base of the bluff, thus stopping the danger of bluff undercutting.

The assembly also includes a geotextile mat on the bottom as a further anchor and foundation. The geotextile system is designed specifically for each site. Once the design is complete, the fabric of the entire system is sewn together into one unit in a special assembly building.

Once completed, the assembled unit is hauled to the site and laid in place. Concrete is then pumped into the forms. "This installation is a tricky operation," Holmberg explains, "Sometimes we have to work in water ten to twenty feet deep at the base of the bluffs. Shifting currents and waves make the work difficult at best. However, once everything is in place, sand buildup begins quickly."

Currents drop small amounts of sand as they pass over the "speed bumps". As a part of this process, sand is continually deposited in the nearshore, shallowing up the lake bottom and encouraging sand bar development.

"When properly installed," explains Holmberg, "the submerged sand filter systems harness wave and tidal energy carrying sand to the beach areas from offshore deposits."

Holmberg says water quality is improved as water soaks down through new beach sand. There the filtering action, plus microscopic plants and other life in the sand, remove impurities present in the water.

During many years experience in the maritime service, Holmberg was a keen observer of the dynamics of water and sand movement. "As a deep sea diver in many parts of the world," he explains, "one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that nature will do many wonderful things if you leave her alone-or work with her. Look at the way 'she' created all the magnificent beaches, dunes and barrier islands.

"This was fine until about 150 years ago, when people started interfering with natural hydro dynamics and beach-building process by putting all kinds of structures and buildings on the shores' edge, dredging deepwater channels, and installing harbors to sustain a burgeoning industrial economy.

"As beach erosion problems worsened because of these disruptions, the solutions most often used by private land owners and governments was an assortment of pilings, seawalls, high groins, and rock riprap. It was also a handy place to dump old tires and car bodies.

"There is a high incidence of failure associated with these remedies. The main reason they fail is their proponents simply haven't learned to work with nature. Instead, they unwittingly work against nature."

In the early 1950's, the Corp of Engineers dug an outlet to the ocean for Port Canaveral in Florida. Before the dredging, sand was accreting at the rate of about two feet per year. Soon after the dredging, an unraveling of the beaches started, affecting some 41 miles of shoreline.

In 1994, a federal appeals court opened the door for 271 beachside property owners to sue the Corps for beach and upland erosion caused by the Corp's dredging at Canaveral. The class-action suit seeks $200 million in property damages.

Holmberg's Undercurrent Stabilizer System Works

The best answer as to whether or not Holmberg's systems create natural beaches is to travel up and down Michigan's lake shore and see for yourself, as many have done. Look at the more than 100 restored beaches, created naturally by the lake's own wave and currents.

Visit with the many elated home owners. Talk with them as they show you beaches, some with a 20' elevation and 200' wide, now completely covering failed seawalls, groins and assorted structures that once doomed their property.

The Michigan State legislature is funding a research study of Holmberg's systems to determine their effectiveness and to answer critics who claim, "they can't work". One study area was on the property of "Chub" Thorsen and his Scotland Yard Vacation cottages, adjacent to Orchard Beach State Park and a nearby control area where there is no beach.

The interim research report, after a year's operation, says that "a consistent profile volume gain, with no apparent negative impact, must be viewed as 'success' in almost any context". The report further states that the once high rates of bottom down cutting "have been substantially mitigated by the structure."

There is a feeling among some that net beach erosion is a natural process, to be accepted without reservation - nothing can be done to stop it. Others hold that our own actions, by both private landowners and government officials, are largely responsible for disappearing beaches. Holmberg's clients know that something can, and is, being done to reverse this phenomenon.

Traditional efforts to control erosion along beaches have largely been unsuccessful and extremely expensive. The Corps of Engineers spent more than a half-billion dollars pumping 46.9 million cubic yards of sand on Florida beaches from 1980 to 1993. The process needs to be continually repeated because the sand keeps being washed away.

In the fall of 1994, the Corps started spending $120 million to build up the sand on a 12-mile stretch of beach along the New Jersey shore. But within 8 months, half of a 350 foot-wide dredged beach had already been swept back into the ocean. This occurred even before Hurricane Felix removed more sand by stalling offshore in August, 1995.

Holmberg, because of his years of successful experience in correcting beach erosion problems, has several strong beliefs that are shared by many people. Among these convictions is that imprudent location of shoreline structures both by private individuals and government bodies should be prevented. Outmoded and largely unsuccessful methods of erosion control should be prohibited.

New technology, such as the successful Undercurrent Stabilizer System, should be given more use and recognition by federal and state regulatory agencies. Successful methods of natural beach restoration exist, but more need to be permitted nationwide.

America's priceless heritage of beaches and sandy shorelines must not be further destroyed. With the right kind of help, nature rebuilds beaches spontaneously. Ask any of the hundred or more of homeowners who look out on their own restored shorelines. They have the proof in hand.

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