We heard from a reader this week who was troubled about the ongoing erosion problem along our shoreline, not just in this town but also for others farther east along the Cape.
She said all the beach renourishment projects that the towns and private homeowners are undertaking is like “throwing money into the ocean.”
Well, she’s right. The sand we’ve used to bolster our beaches over the years has ended up in the ocean. It’s all washed away. But that’s not to say it hasn’t helped. It was sacrificial sand, so to speak. Let it get washed away instead of the remaining dune.
But then she suggested something radical. “Let’s get rid of the canal and the jetties altogether,” she said.
She said that way, sand can flow naturally without interruption eastward along the entire coastline and not get hung up at the jetties.
She admitted that the idea sounds crazy.
No, we said, it’s not a crazy idea. In fact, we told her, we suggested the same thing six years ago in an editorial.
It’s an idea that, while totally radical, is worth a look. And why not now? Before more money is spent to dump sand on the beach, before more than a billion dollars is spent to replace the canal bridges, before any more homes are washed away?
We’re all in agreement now that the jetties at the east entrance to the Cape Cod Canal are to blame for Sandwich’s lack of sand.
After years of denial, even the Army Corps of Engineers is now on board with the idea that the large stone structures they built in 1906 to keep sediment from filling in the Big Ditch are effectively starving Sandwich’s beaches, blocking the natural flow of this sand eastward from Plymouth’s White Cliffs to Town Neck Beach and beyond.
So why not attack the problem at its root—the jetties? Why not get rid of them? Pull out the rocks and let the sand flow.
That would sure solve things for Sandwich long term.
There is no doubt that removing the jetties would cause the canal’s east entrance to shoal, making it impassable to anything but small pleasure craft. No more shortcut for barges and tankers.
In our editorial from six years ago, we asked if the canal was even necessary anymore for commercial vessels like these?
Not really, said Richard Gurnon, who at the time was president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“Let the record show, I think the Cape Cod Canal is a wonderful natural resource. It attracts millions of visitors each year,” he said. “But when you ask if there are any real safety or economic drawbacks with the idea of letting the canal close up, I would have to answer no. There are none,” he said.
The canal was first built to provide a safe, convenient shortcut, primarily between the shipping ports of New York and Boston—shaving about 150 nautical miles off the trip.
Rounding the windswept tip of the Cape, with its limited navigational landmarks, was risky business back then.
But times have changed, Mr. Gurnon said:
“When you come right down to it, New York and Boston harbors are no longer the two biggest shipping ports in the world. Boston probably isn’t even in the top 200.”
And when it comes to the long voyages that these barges and freighters make, adding 150 additional nautical miles “isn’t that big of an impact,” Mr. Gurnon said.
Additionally, global positioning satellites have taken the guesswork out of navigation, so rounding the tip of the Cape is not as hazardous as it once was, he added.
So why not let it fill in and revert to a natural waterway? It would solve Sandwich’s sand problems, would save millions of federal tax dollars on canal upkeep each year, and would eliminate the need to build two huge, and hugely expensive, new bridges.