SANDY CREEK — A year ago, retired Skidmore College Environmental Science professor Tom Hart drove from his home in Lake Placid to congratulate the people here for the work they’ve done preserving and protecting Sandy Pond, a project he’s been involved with for over 35 years.
Now, a year later, the project’s somewhat winding down. The mission’s just about accomplished, though it may never really be over. So much depends on the lake and the enormous force it exerts on this narrow strip of beach and dunes that separates it from, and forms, Sandy Pond. What was once 200 feet wide in places is now 30.
The dunes here are the highest in the northeast, including the Atlantic Ocean shore, according to Hart. And he and the people of Sandy Creek have not only led the state in preserving and rebuilding them and this beach, moving thousands of cubic yards of sand from the lake and the pond to the shore, but they are leading it still in the environmentally nature-based methods by which they’ve done so. Hart’s been watching this pond and this lake for a long time. Over those 35 years, his thoughts on how to work with it all have changed dramatically. His method of preservation is now not only scientifically-based, it’s experience-based. Where his thoughts were once in line with those of typical engineers, they are now much more nature-based, and have been proven effective in comparison with those generally-held preservation policies.
“The Corps of Engineers often seeks an engineer’s solution,” he said in a recent interview. “They did an analysis of North Sandy Pond, putting a jetty in and dikes along the sides to create a harbor, and the conclusion of their analysis said that it would be more cost effective just to dredge every year than it would be for them to attempt to build something in that environment. The thought of being able to engineer something that’s going to withstand a 17-foot and greater wave event is kind of ludicrous. The wave height in the lake, by the offshore buoys, is actually closer to 24 to 25 feet, and the natural sand basin reduces that to about 17 feet by the time it approaches shore. If you put in hard structures, you’d end up with that scour in the front, and if we’ve learned anything from 2019, it’s that those things that were engineered to have 30-year life spans, ended up having two-year life spans. You have to recognize and respect the extreme energy and strength of what the lake can do.
“A lot of engineers aren’t comfortable working with sand,” Hart continued. “They are more comfortable with predictable structures. At some point, people are going to recognize that these things don’t work well. If you look just to the south at Sandy Island Beach State Park, they put a multi-million dollar structure in there to cover several hundred feet of shoreline. That was put in in 2017 with a 30-year design life and by 2019 they had to rebuild it. The traditional ways of looking at this just don’t work. People don’t understand the magnitude of the forces involved and how soft structures respond. I’m not saying I do either, but I certainly have a lot of appreciation for what happens in this area of Lake Ontario. It’s really unique.
“If I look at the IJC (International Joint Commission) reports,” Hart said, “they talk about damage to properties along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. I think this area has kind of been overlooked. Even though there have been some studies done for it, people along the southern shore just don’t have a 17-foot wall of water repeatedly coming every 10 seconds for a day.
“You have to look at each scenario differently and understand what’s driving the system, and some of the pat answers, or general policy beliefs, don’t work here.”
It’s easy to hear the professor in Tom Hart. He speaks in full, flowing, coherent and careful sentences. “Last year,” he began, “the weather pattern wasn’t kind to us at all. A lot of the sand got moved about. It was on the right side of the barrier, moving from the shoal to the front side, but we had in that 2019-2020 winter three 17-foot storm events. The one that came in March, right after the governor’s press event here, was the worst of them because ice had formed on the lakeshore, but not enough. It was a very thin band, maybe 30 or 50 yards worth of ice, which compresses along the shore. And so, what happened was, when that large storm came in in March, it didn’t overtop. The ice protected it some. The ice acted as if the entire shoreline was armored with rock. It had the same effect. And anytime you armor the shoreline, it scours out. So, there’s a huge trench that was burrowed out in front of the entire 17-mile stretch of eastern Lake Ontario. And that’s what led to those two shipwrecks being exposed, one just to the south of our project area and one to the north. And those ships had sunk in 1880 and had not been seen since. So, this tells you how unusual that the event was. So, just having those ships exposed, and the amount of scour that went on there, that 17-foot storm in March was followed by a 10-foot storm, and that 10-foot storm really had its way with the dune that we had constructed. It actually moved it around. Again, the sand was where it needed to be, but we lost so much of the elevation just because without sand in front of the beach, the waves weren’t tripping at all, they trip on the toe on the bottom, and these waves just washed right up onto shore. But, fast forward to this year, the maximum storm height that we’ve had is nine feet, and in contrast to last year, we have lower lake level and significant ice cover now. And that ice cover’s been in place now for maybe five or six weeks. So, with the shores protected, we were able to capture a fair amount of sand by natural means. We put sand fencing up along that whole stretch of shoreline. It’s got to be 2,000 feet. Along with catching the sand, we planted 5,000 plants last fall, so, I’m very hopeful that things are going to allow us to go out and plant again this spring. We’ll have to see what the lake does.
“The other differences between last winter and this winter,” he continued, “most of the watershed last winter didn’t freeze, and the ground didn’t freeze in a lot of places, so whatever runoff there was had the opportunity to soak back into the ground water. It’s not the case this year. The ground’s all frozen, and we do have some snow packs, so there’s going to be more of a sharp spike in runoff, and we’ll see what the increase is in spring. Part of the good news though is that just yesterday, Feb. 14, the IJC extended its authorization to let more water out of the lake. They were good through Feb. 28. Now they’ve extended that into spring. And the reason that they say they’re doing that is that all the other Great Lakes are at record highs, so there’s a lot of water built up in the system, which kind of limits what range they can work within. We’re not going to have a reduction in flow from Lake Erie moving into Lake Ontario.
“We need to have a little bit of time for nature to extend the work that we did,” Hart said, “and we can easily get another ten, twenty, thirty thousand cubic yards of sand into the structure of the beach and dune if we’re given a little bit of time to collect it by wind processes.”
Wind, water, ice, sand, and one more very important natural element make up the basis of Hart’s approach. Beach grass, that very delicate-looking, wild grass you’ve seen in countless beach photos, often spread out here and there across a sandy stretch, not seeming to do much, just existing. Well, as it turns out, that existence is a crucial building block of natural sand collection. And sand collection is what this preservation project is all about.
“Beach grass catches a lot of sand and also adds some natural resiliency to the dune itself once you have that root structure established in the dune,” Hart said. “It’s very beneficial. It forms a mat. It’s not like trees. Trees don’t help that much. Trees fall over and the root balls are large and actually destabilize a lot of sand. That’s why earthen dams don’t have trees on them, because it destabilizes the underlying structure.
“Volunteers went out over the past year,” Hart continued, “and dug from plots that are rich in beach grass and well behind the dune. Beach grass doesn’t like to grow behind the dune like that. It likes to be challenged by waves and exposure, or be buried by sand. That’s when it does best. They were able to thin out sections and plant that. After that season, the plant density from where they took plants was actually higher than when they started. So, that just shows you that the plant likes to be challenged, hates being walked on, but digging it up and culling it actually enhances what it likes to do.”
It’s also a lot of work, and because, as Hart said, it’s more efficient to buy nursery stock than dig and transplant, he and his co-workers searched for and found a nursery in Michigan that actually had Great Lakes beach grass in stock they’d started growing in the 1950s.
“A lot of the plantings that have been done on the eastern shore have been of the Atlantic Ocean variety, Cape beach grass,” Hart said, “and we wanted to go with something that was more native to the Great Lakes. It’s a Laurentian strain. So, we got 5,000 plugs of that. It’s a lot easier planting when you don’t have to dig them up first.”
Of course a mere 5,000 plants is almost nothing to Hart. They’re going to be planting another 10,000 to 15,000 beach grass plants this year. That number wasn’t quite nothing to him. It’s a lot of grass, but nevertheless, he said, “As soon as the ice clears, we’re going to be out there again planting beach grass.”
The amount of beach grass planted is only dwarfed by the amount of sand dredged from the lake and pond and brought up and distributed onto the shore. The numbers are daunting and the sight of very large backhoes with long, extending buckets out in the lake plunging in again and again, coming up with dripping loads of sand which they unload into waiting dump trucks is truly something to behold and wakes one up to the magnitude of this effort. One bucketful of sand is barely noticeable in a dump truck, and this is done thousands of times resulting in thousands upon thousands of cubic yards of sand ending up back on the beach.
“The inlet has been dredged typically every year or every other year,” Hart said. “So, that will give us a source of maintenance sand for both north and south ends of the beach. The place where sand has been placed by each dredging project in the past, and we’re talking about 20 years history of dredging now, can’t accommodate any more sand. So, we’re hoping to have the sand that’s used in dredging the channel, which amounts to 10,000 or 12,000 cubic yards, used for maintenance to keep the structure that we put in place there and also to address some of the impacts that have happened to the south.”
How high will the dunes ever be? “There’s an opportunity for them to grow if the grasses are in place,” Hart said. “It will never rival the glacial dunes that are 60 to 70 feet tall there, but I’ve actually seen evidence of dunes forming at the base of, and even part way up the face of, some of these dunes that have been severely eroded. It’s really hard to say what will happen there. It would be very nice to see an additional two to three feet built in that area, but it’s hard to guess what will happen there. One of the things that works against that is because that shoreline has receded 1,200 feet. That shore in 1891 used to almost be flat. The original studies of the eastern shore of Lake Ontario showed that the sand moves both north and south in this environment, and the node where that balance point is, is right at the inlet (to Sandy Pond). Any time any sand is moving past that inlet, with an increase in lake level, sand’s being pushed into the pond. That’s why there’s almost 800,000 cubic yards of sand in that shoal now. That’s the first time a shoal of that nature has ever formed. In all other cases, the inlet moved. And that’s because the shore used to have a much flatter aspect to it. North and south was more of a straight line. Now, we’ve got a cut geography such that any waves hitting in either the north or the south barrier are going to tend to flow the sand toward that furthest eastern point, which is where the inlet is right now. So, where this goes in the future, it’s really hard to say.”
It’s hard to say because inlets move. They come and go. And in the case of Sandy Pond, that could be a real problem. And it is a real possibility.
“We did offer in our analysis of alternatives a do-nothing alternative,” Hart said. “We also talked about shore hardening and creating a hard structure. We talked about continuing to dredge the channel as is without doing anything to stop the breaching at the north barrier, but the community in its meetings and also of the North Pond Resiliency Committee all wanted to see this effort made. There’s no guarantee here. We wanted to give it a good effort, because the alternative is that other inlet, if it were to form to the north, 1,000 feet north of where the channel is now, all that land in-between would probably dissolve over time. It would probably take four or five years for a new dominant inlet to form, and with all the boating that’s going on there, and the lifestyle that people seem to gravitate towards, would be lost for that period of time. So, there’d be economic impacts for that. There would also be potential impacts for the pond itself. All those shoreline structures, the pond properties are designed for pond environments, not exposure to the lake. So, the work that we did in 2019/2020 also gave time for those property owners to implement their shore improvements. They had time to address the damages they had incurred already and to do some things like raising their property, raising their houses, putting in some stone that made sense in that area. So, there’s a lot that’s been going on for that, and we kind of gave a window of opportunity for that work to proceed without having an additional breach in the barrier.”
Along with his concern for the very future of life as residents along the pond now know it, is his interest in the opportunity for wider beaches.
“Understand that a four-inch drop in lake level,” Hart said, “equals 10 feet of newly-exposed beach. If you have a small change in lake level, the extent of beach that ends up being exposed, and then if it’s able for the wind to take action on that and move that sand upland, it becomes significant. And if you have a one-foot change, that’s a significant amount of beach, 30 or 40 foot of beach that opens up. The point is, a small change in lake level results in a much greater expanse of beach that’s available. We spent most of 2019/2020 with very little exposed beach, so there was very little opportunity for nature-based processes, coastal processes, for aeolian movement of sand to take place, but as we went into the winter, the beach was much, much wider. Some of that has to do with natural processes, some of it has to do with the amount of sand we moved out there already. So, that sand can return to the structures of the dune.”
That may keep Hart, and the many others who’ve made this project a success, working for awhile. But if it were to start all over again, Hart said, “I don’t think we would return to another project of this scale. I think maintenance is going to be a key for it. I think we’ve come up with a much better understanding of how the system operates. It sure would have been nice if those 2017/2019 impacts didn’t happen. The project would have had a different scale and a different outcome, but a lot of changes in Laurentian weather patterns were predicted, and it happened exactly as predicted, so, it’s not surprising. We’ll have to see what happens in the future.”
For the next few years, though the project will mainly center on maintenance work and planting beach grass, Hart said.
It’s been a lot of work. It’s been somewhat of a battle. Sometimes Hart and company have won. Other times the lake has been the winner, destroying some of those earlier victories Hart worked hard to attain. Yet he takes it all very philosophically.
Did the damage caused by the lake in its ravages discourage him in light of all the work he’d put in? “No,” he said, “because, again, the sand was on the correct side.”
He looked on it as “a large down payment. And what that allowed us to do is, with 10,000 cubic yards, come back and build on something that had a lot more volume to it. So, nothing was wasted in that regard. Because we made that down payment, just going back in and extending that by 10,000 cubic yards allowed us to do something that we’re hopeful will be much more resilient. It also allowed the system to respond to both the natural events and what we had done there. The beach actually rolls back toward the mainland over time. The area around the inlet had been about 1,200 feet further lakeward 150 years ago. So, that’s how it’s been responding. So, when we rebuilt the dune that we put in this last installment in the project, it’s back another 40 or 50 feet. So, it’s actually behind the tree line instead of within and in front of the tree line that had been there. That gives us a lot more ability to expect it to be more durable, if you will, but then again, it all depends on what the lake wants to do,” he said, almost immediately correcting himself for attributing desire to the lake.
“Weather is what it is,” Hart said, “and you just have to recognize that this environment is different than most of those on the Great Lakes.”
And over 35 years, he’s learned how to live and work with that difference.