NANTUCKET, Mass. -- Al Lussier will never forget the day a nor'easter pounded the surf off his beachfront home in Codfish Park so hard he saw waves in his toilet.
"It was awful ... I had my own tides," said Lussier, recalling the December 1992 storm that was so powerful meteorologists ranked it one that should happen only every 40 years. Only Nantucket was hit by another "40-year" caliber storm just a year earlier.
The beaches on the island off the southeastern Massachusetts coast have suffered the brunt of nature's assault -- with erosion eating away at about 14 feet of beach per year on the south shore.
A $1.4 million system known as Sta-beach is designed to lower the water table. It was installed along a three-mile stretch of the Siasconset shoreline six years ago and has slowed the march of the sea, but not stopped it.
Now, landowners agree something more needs to be done -- but they're at odds with environmentalists on how to do it.
A group of landowners, known as the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, received permission earlier this year from the Nantucket Conservation Commission to expand the current system and install 8-foot-high plastic tubes in two sections at and around the historic Sankaty Head Lighthouse.
"It's like a big sausage," said Lussier, a 42-year resident and a director of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund.
Though supporters said the so-called Geotextile tubes would not have been visible on the beach because of the slope of the shore, environmentalists went to court to halt the project.
The Nantucket Land Council Inc., in court papers filed in April, claimed the conservation commission erred in granting permission for the tubes.
In June, the landowners acquiesced and eliminated the contentious Geotube provision so they could proceed with other parts of the erosion-easing plan. The change is subject to the approval of state environmental policy officials.
"I'm glad they dropped the Geotube," said Bruce Perry, an environmentalist and property manager for the Nantucket Land Bank. "There's still other questions about other parts of the project and monitoring."
The Geotubes would have been put on a beach that is not easily accessible to bathers because of bluffs up to 100-feet high. Still, environmentalists didn't like the look.
"I'm fundamentally opposed to alterations on the coastal beach," said Phil Austin, an environmentalist who is also director of Nantucket's Clean Water Alliance. "A selective group of affluent people are trying to preserve a small part of the island, and not respecting the entire coastal area."
The issue remains in court, and Helmut Weymar, vice president of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, is negotiating with the environmentalists to get them to drop the case. If they don't, the project will be suspended even if the state approves the changes.
"They (the environmentalists) have indicated that all we need to do is to tie up some details and then they would drop the appeal," Weymar said.
Perry says in the future something will have to give.
"Long term, they're going to have to move the houses," he said. "The island has been eroding for 5,000 years."
Weymar estimates that 95 homes in Siasconset, including about a third of which are 100 years old or more, are vulnerable to erosion.
Erosion is a growing problem nationwide.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that over the next 60 years, erosion may claim one out of four houses within 500 feet of the U.S. shoreline.
That is something coastline Nantucketers are trying to avoid.
A $1.5 million upgrade to the current dewatering system would add collection pipes and install larger pumps. The pumps would be changed from a gravity to a vacuum system that would enable it to discharge seawater through its pipes five times faster, or 25,000 gallons every minute.
The idea is that if less water is returning to the sea from the beach, less sand will be carried off with the backwash of waves.
According to Weymar, Sta-beach is used in some 15 places around the world, but none in conjunction with Geotubes as he was proposing.
Many environmentalists think the debate should be settled by nature.
"I just think they should yank all that stuff out of there," Austin said. "Every action of nature has a reaction. Nature bats last."
On the Net:
Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.noaa.gov
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