NORTH WILDWOOD — Mention the Wildwoods to many throughout New Jersey, and they are likely to think of a few indelible images: the Boardwalk, the rides and the wide, wide beaches.
While towns along the Jersey coastline struggle to address eroding beaches, relying on multimillion-dollar federal beach replenishment projects, most would assume Wildwood communities have no such worries.
Along the north end of the barrier island, the ocean regularly slaps against a stone seawall in North Wildwood. Local officials hope to see a federal project restore sand in that area, but those plans have been delayed, and local efforts to address the issue have run afoul of state regulators.
According to Dr. Stewart Farrell, the founder of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University, the beach along the north end of North Wildwood has lost massive amounts of sand. He described it as the area of most concern in the region in terms of beach erosion.
“The beach there is back to where it’s real serious, because it’s at the doorstep of development,” Farrell said on Monday.
North Wildwood has been trucking sand from the wider beaches in neighboring Wildwood in an attempt to shore up the area, in a process known as back passing. But according to North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, that process cannot hope to keep up with the erosion. The process adds about 200,000 cubic yards of sand each winter, he said, but he estimates about 2 million cubic yards of sand are needed to address the problem.
“We’re putting an annual Band-Aid on something that needs open heart surgery,” Rosenello said.
In the meantime, the city has resorted to placing steel bulkheads on the beach to stop storms from damaging properties and infrastructure. According to Rosenello, the state Department of Environmental Protection has issued the city a notice of violation over the structures, which he described as the least expensive and fastest way to stave off further erosion.
“We are going to take whatever action is necessary to protect our town,” Rosenello said. He described the state’s action as ironic, suggesting that the state and federal government have not done enough to protect North Wildwood from erosion.
“Last week, waves were crashing into those steel bulkheads,” he said. “The Army Corps and the DEP, they’re pointing fingers at each other. Meanwhile, we’re holding the bag and taking emergency action.”
A DEP spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rosenello said the bulkhead should not be the first line of defense against erosion, but instead should be a last resort. He would rather they be buried behind a wide beach and healthy dune system. But the city cannot afford the kind of project needed to put that beach in place.
Throughout New Jersey and beyond, he said, the state and federal governments pick up most of the tab for shore protection.
“Whether it’s beaches in New Jersey or levees in Louisiana, that is the national policy. That is the national model for shore protection,” he said.
According to Farrell, there is a project already designed for the north end of North Wildwood, but it has not yet been funded. He agreed that the city’s ongoing work trucking sand to the area is just not sufficient.
“Half the sand is going into Hereford Inlet and the other half is going to the city of Wildwood,” Farrell said.
The inlet separating North Wildwood and Stone Harbor is one of the most dynamic in the region, its channel swinging back and forth between the two towns. Decades ago, it scoured most of the sand from a natural area in the south end of Stone Harbor at a time when North Wildwood’s inlet beaches stretched wide.
Now, there’s more than a mile of undeveloped beach in Stone Harbor and the rushing waters of the inlet pull sand from North Wildwood. The beaches along the inlet have seen some growth, Rosenello said, but on the ocean side, sand has disappeared quickly.
“The north end of what we call the front beach, that has taken a real beating,” the mayor said. “We’ve seen rapid erosion since around 2016. That’s when we lost our dune system.”
Starting near about 3rd Avenue, the city had a wide system of dunes topped with thick dune grass and larger plants. Now, those dunes have been swept away down to about 13th Street.
“We’ve lost 10 blocks of our dune system,” he said.
According to Farrell, the toughest spots for erosion on all of New Jersey’s barrier islands are beaches on the northern end of the islands. In Ocean City, Strathmere, Atlantic City and elsewhere, that’s where erosion is most severe, but right now, North Wildwood is of the greatest concern.
“It’s been an issue there for more than a decade,” he said.
Most of the beaches in Atlantic and Cape May counties have seen federal beach projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers. In some cases, including Ocean City and Cape May, there have been multiple projects returning eroded sand to beaches, with the intent of protecting infrastructure and property from storm damage. Total spending on beach projects in New Jersey has topped $1 billion and more projects are on the way.
Rosenello said he wants his town to get its share.
“We are constantly pushing the DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers to do the job that they are supposed to do,” he said. The city expected a beach replenishment project as part of the federal response after Superstorm Sandy, but no project ever happened.
Steve Rochette, a spokesman with the Army Corps Philadelphia district, said a project is in the works, but it will take time.
He released a prepared statement on behalf of the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps: “We’re committed to constructing the dune-and-beach backpassing project in the Wildwoods in partnership with our sponsor — the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. These projects take time to plan, design, and ultimately construct. The project requires real estate acquisition (ongoing by the state of New Jersey) and coordination and concurrence with the other municipalities on the island. We’re currently in the final design stage and our team is working through the necessary steps in order to construct the project as soon as possible.”