Vacationers returning to Ocean City this weekend might notice deeper, wider beaches, the result of a $282 million sand dredging project aimed at protecting the resort town from storm damage. But the work also raises concerns about surf injuries and swimmer safety.
Over the winter, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumped enough sand to fill 275 Olympic-sized swimming pools onto Maryland beaches, a chore jointly funded by the state and federal governments. The work has been performed regularly since the 1990s to redistribute naturally shifting sands and maintain a line of bulkheads and dunes that block the roughest surf from reaching beachfront property.
Engineers estimate the investments have prevented $900 million in damage during the biggest hurricanes and nor'easter storms that have hit the coast over the years.
But some who watch the waves closely, including researchers and surfers, say the work can give the beach an unnatural profile that increases the risks of injuries and drownings.
"They've made it very unsafe for the tourists," said Denny Riordon, owner of Assateague Island Surf Shop near Berlin. "This is, to me, a continuous waste of money."
There is no firm data to connect what is known as beach renourishment or replenishment to hazards, said Greg Dusek, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service, but the engineering undoubtedly changes beaches' shape and wave patterns. That requires swimmers and surfers to pay closer attention to rip currents or powerful waves that break directly on shore.
Whether or not the work makes swimming more dangerous, Dusek said, the beach renourishment changes surf conditions that regular vacationers might have gotten used to.
"You need to be aware of what the risks are before you get in the water," he said. "You need to know what to look for."
Barrier island beaches such as those at Ocean City naturally slope gradually into the ocean, with sandbars just offshore, ideally fostering relatively shallow and calm waters closest to land.
But storms and currents constantly change beach profiles, eroding sand in some places and depositing it elsewhere.
In resort towns around the country where oceanfront properties are worth millions of dollars, beach renourishment projects have been the answer to those natural fluctuations.
In Ocean City, the beach is designed to be at an elevation of 7 feet above what is known as mean high water, and 100 feet wide before sloping into the ocean, said Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the Army Corps' Baltimore district office. Since the early 1990s, he said, it has been engineered with a 14.5-foot steel bulkhead from Fourth Street to 27th Street and a system of dunes from there north to the Delaware state line.
Sand along that section of coastline naturally migrates from north to south, which explains why the beach is at its widest near the jetty on the north side of the Ocean City inlet.
To ensure the beaches maintain those specifications, the Army Corps performs beach renourishment at least once every four years, or more frequently if storms cause significant erosion. This fall and winter, engineers used 900,000 cubic yards from the sea floor a few miles off the coast to repair erosion, most significantly from a January 2016 nor'easter storm.
Gov. Larry Hogan discussed beach renourishment at a news conference in November.
"Most people are aware of how great the beach is here," he said. "But what most visitors don't realize is that Ocean City's prime attraction, its legendary beach, is also a very important part of a massive project to protect Ocean City and our coastal shoreline from powerful coastal storms and hurricanes."
While there is little dispute that the literal shoring up has prevented storm damage, beach renourishment has become controversial among some scientists, physicians and surfers who think it also might introduce new dangers. Some say they have seen increases in neck and shoulder injuries from rough surf or in rip currents — fast-moving streams that pull swimmers away from shore.
John Fletemeyer, a researcher and expert witness at the Aquatic Law and Safety Institute, said a link between beach renourishment and increased danger hasn't been proved, but there is "compelling" evidence that suggests more research is needed. Fletemeyer and a group of researchers at the University of Miami cited an increase in rescues and injuries on recently nourished beaches, including in Ocean City, in a letter in the Journal of Coastal Research.
"We believe that these changes could be elevating the probability of rip-current formation on recreational beaches and may have contributed to the increase in accident rates being reported by lifeguards on some recently nourished beaches," they wrote.
"At the very least, until more research on this subject is completed, warnings signs should be strategically placed on beaches that have been recently nourished."
Dusek said the subject is difficult to study because sand and rip currents move around, making it challenging to capture useful data with scientific instruments in the surf. Researchers are hoping to use lifeguards' observations and video recordings of surf conditions to better understand why and where rip currents form.
Ocean City lifeguarding statistics show year-to-year fluctuations in rescues that don't align with beach renourishment. The last time there were drownings while lifeguards were on duty was 2014, the year the dredging was last performed. Four people drowned in Ocean City that year. The Ocean City Beach Patrol cited alcohol or drug use and poor swimming ability as factors in the two drownings that occurred when lifeguards were present.
Butch Arbin, captain of the beach patrol, said he doesn't expect the winter's beach renourishment to cause more dangerous conditions this year — that's more a function of the weather, he said. If a tropical storm is spinning offshore, he said, lifeguards can be called to perform dozens of rescues a day.
Whatever is causing rip currents, lifeguards are trained to spot them — they appear as sandy, churning stretches of water that form gaps between waves — and alert swimmers.
"There's always rip currents," he said. "If you get a lot of water coming into the beach, a lot of water makes its way back out."
Gardner said the Army Corps occasionally hears complaints linking beach renourishment to injuries or rip currents, but the agency has "no data that shows there's any correlation."
The renourishment at Ocean City was completed in December. There has been a series of spring storms since then. It's possible much of the sand has already been redistributed.
"Generally, after a renourishment is done the slope just offshore begins to mimic the natural slope relatively quickly," Gardner said. "Depending on storm activity and other factors, we'd anticipate it to resemble its more natural slope within three to six months."
Zach Newton, a board member of the Ocean City Surf Club, said changes to the sand and the surf are still noticeable. But after a busy winter and spring storm season, he said, things are returning to normal more quickly than in other years.
"As a surfer, I can definitely attest to the change you can see," the Berlin man said. "It alters how the waves come into the beach."
Lee Gerachis, owner of Malibu's Surf Shop in Ocean City, said he's "not a huge fan" of the beach work. He urges swimmers and surfers to be cautious this season.
"You have to be really careful," he said. "It's not a gradual, roll-in wave. It comes to the shore and just jacks up and hits really hard."
Riordon said he opened his shop near the Assateague Island bridge because local surfers were headed to the state and national park land there, away from the engineered beaches of Ocean City. Apart from any dangers the work could pose to swimmers and surfers, he questioned the expense, which is scheduled to continue through at least 2044.
"The city is trying to protect the property; I understand that," he said. "And it has helped; I won't deny that."
"It seems like it is an awful lot of money that they constantly have to [spend]. It's a neverending thing."