A seawall for the greater good


The town of Oak Bluffs is committed to planning for the impacts of climate change on our shoreline. The North Bluff seawall replacement project is one part of this planning effort. We are working to protect the common good — the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people in a community — by protecting the economy, the coastal infrastructure, the recreational value of the beaches, banks, ponds, and salt marshes, and the environmental values of the coast.

A group of passionate local residents is concerned about the aesthetics of a new steel-sheet pile seawall and the viability of an upcoming beach nourishment project. These concerns must be considered in the context of protecting the overall common good.

The North Bluff seawall is a failed seawall. The potential collapse of the seawall has serious regional implications. If it collapses it will damage or destroy a road heavily traveled by all members of the Island community. It is the vehicular access road to the passenger ferries from Falmouth, Hyannis, and Rhode Island. It is used by pedestrians for access to the harbor and Steamship Authority, and for scenic strolls. The collapse of this site would be a regional transportation, environmental, and economic nightmare. This project is necessary to protect the coastal infrastructure of a heavily used, vital transportation route. Replacement of a deteriorated seawall is an infrastructure protection project; failure of this seawall would truly be a regional disaster.

Climate change has disrupted the status quo. New solutions are required to address more severe coastal impacts. A new seawall must be designed to withstand rising seas and stronger and more frequent storms and storm surges. For all the reasons explained by Carlos Pena of CLE Engineering, the town’s engineer for this project, the steel-sheet pile seawall is the best option to protect the site. Unlike a concrete wall, it is able to be driven 30 feet underground and thus not be subject to undermining. It is ridged, which will help break up wave action, as opposed to a strictly vertical concrete wall. Construction will be much less invasive. It will be made of the strongest, most durable steel available. The color gray has been chosen to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

Change is difficult. Tradition is important to this community. But the integrity of our shores is at risk, and the town is obligated to protect the coastal infrastructure for the good of the entire Island community, and to do so using the best-engineered design.

The town is well aware that beaches are the backbone of the Island economy, and that the downtown beaches are especially beloved. That is why we are working to protect and improve them. The North Bluff Beach is disappearing due to the lack of a natural sediment source, increased coastal erosion, and sea level rise. We have a well-developed plan to replenish the downtown beaches. The town is currently working on permitting and funding for this project. It would be ideal to have the sand in place when the seawall is rebuilt, but beach nourishment permitting and funding processes are complex and time-consuming.

Hundreds of thousands of people arrive on the Island through the port of Oak Bluffs, and thus the preservation of our beaches and coastal infrastructure is of importance to the entire community. The town worked hard to seek funding for this project. The award of grant funding is a testament to its necessity. The town has an excellent working relationship with the funding agencies. If this project is not constructed, our opportunities for future funding could be at risk, including funds for the extensive beach renourishment project for the downtown beaches and other climate change adaptation projects. These projects include stabilization of the East Chop Bluff, which protects a road with beautiful scenic vistas enjoyed by all residents and Island visitors, and protection of the Oak Bluffs Harbor and Sunset Lake, the salt marshes of Sengekontacket and Brush Ponds, and our low-lying coastal roads and bike paths. This project is one piece of a much larger plan to address climate change impacts. If this project is not successful, the remaining pieces of the adaptation plan could be jeopardized, to the detriment of the entire Island community.

A steel-sheet pile seawall is a nontraditional approach to protecting a special site. In light of climate change impacts, however, it is the best, strongest, most well-designed approach to protecting the coastal infrastructure. In a changing world, on an Island in the middle of a rising sea, this project is vital to protect the integrity of the bank and the road above it.

As we struggle along in our day-to-day lives, it is easy to forget that sometimes it is necessary to set aside individual preferences in order to serve the greater good.

Liz Durkee has been the conservation agent for the town of Oak Bluffs for the past 22 years. Her primary tasks for the past several years have been administering the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and Oak Bluffs Wetlands bylaw, and educating the public and town leaders on the impacts of climate change.