By Leslie Fields
Nauset Beach holds the heart of many seaside enthusiasts, whether they are year-round Cape Codders or occasional summer visitors. The beach is one of the Town’s most important natural assets, supporting nearly 1.2 million visitors each year. It is the only public beach in the Town of Orleans with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, offering a range of excellent outdoor recreational opportunities and natural scenic beauty. As a public facility maintained by the Town of Orleans, beach goers have access to restrooms, changing rooms, outside showers, summer concerts at the gazebo, and a menu of delicious seafood and world-famous onion rings served up at Liam’s restaurant.
Given its direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean, the beaches and dunes that comprise Nauset Beach are constantly changing. Winter storms cause erosion of the beach and scouring of the protective coastal dune. The average rate of erosion calculated over the 21-year period from 1994 to 2015 was approximately 12 feet per year. This represents a nearly 5-fold increase in the longer-term rate of erosion calculated over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can actually see the changes from year to year. Beach and dune erosion has reduced the dune in front of Liam’s snack shack to only 80 feet wide. Impacts from rising sea levels and increased storm frequencies and intensities associated with climate change will only increase the potential for flooding and storm damages to this already impacted area.
The Town of Orleans has an active coastal zone management program for Nauset Beach with the goal of maintaining the public beach and associated facilities as long as possible, while also planning for retreat as the beach is gradually lost to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2010 the Town proactively acquired a former motel site located landward of the Nauset Beach parking lot in preparation for managed retreat from the shoreline. More recently, the Town has taken steps to follow recommendations of the 2016 Beach Management Plan prepared by the Woods Hole Group, Inc. to implement a plan of phased retreat to reduce vulnerability.
Phase 1 will reduce risk to the most vulnerable facility on site, Liam’s snack shack, by removing the existing building and replacing it with a mobile concession located in a more protected area behind the dunes. Sand will also be used to reduce the risk of storm overwash by narrowing and raising the dune access paths, and sand fencing will be installed to promote natural accretion of the dunes. Funding to support Phase 1 will be requested at the Spring 2018 Orleans Town Meeting making construction ready by the late fall of 2018.
Phase 2 will continue with managed retreat by removing the remaining buildings that house the restrooms, changing rooms, and administrative offices, and moving them into mobile units. The landward side of the dune will also be nourished with 30,000 cubic yards of sand and beach grass will be planted to help enhance the resiliency of the resource. Phase 2 of the plan will result in the loss of approximately 130 parking spaces. Money for implementation of phase 2 will require approval by the Orleans voters with construction possible as early as the winter of 2020 or 2021.
The ongoing erosion dictates a need to respond and retreat methodically. Delaying action will result in damage to facilities and access ways, and will create conditions that compromise the ability to adjust
and relocate in a controlled fashion. The Town’s program has been designed to maintain the public beach and associated facilities as long as practical, while planning for managed retreat as dictated by mother nature.
-Leslie Fields is a Senior Coastal Geologist, CFM with the Woods Hole Group, Inc. and is currently working with the town of Orleans on the Nauset Beach Management Project.