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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently began a beach replenishment project in Bradley Beach. The plan is to dump over a million cubic yards of sand onto the beach between Asbury Park and Avon-by-the-Sea, a few miles south. For scale purposes, a cubic yard takes up about the same amount of space as a normal-sized kitchen stove. What will it cost to gather up, and dump, a million stoves’ worth of sand onto our humble beach? A mere $18.3 million, or about 18 bucks per stove.

It’s a huge project, by any standard. The entire shoreline replenishment project may cost as much as $102 million, and is supposed to cover the beaches from Sea Bright to Manasquan. In fact, it’s the most extensive beach replenishment project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever undertaken, and by volume of sand it’s the biggest beach-fill project in the world.

I can personally testify to the gargantuan nature of the effort: night after night, you can hear the monotonous backup beeps of the bulldozers as they push the new sand around on the beach, in the glare of banks of floodlights run by diesel-powered generators on wooden sledges.

The process is fascinating. There are two tanker ships they use to suck up a slurry of sand from a designated site offshore. Once one of them is full, it moves into position approximately 100 yards off the beach, and hooks up to a floating pipe about three feet in diameter. That floating, flexible pipe connects to a series of rigid metal pipes of similar size connected end to end, and strung along the shoreline.

Affixed to the discharge end of the pipeline on the beach, there’s an open metal box with heavy-duty wire screen walls measuring probably 10 feet wide, by 12 or 15 feet high, by 10 feet deep. When the tanker is pumping, a gray slurry of watery sand gushes out of the metal pipe, and is forced through the wire mesh, which acts as a filter.

IMG_7562They need that because it seems the best offshore area for grabbing all that sand is located under an area where, years ago, the U.S. Navy blew up old ships, and other cool stuff for fun. Oops, I mean target practice. So periodically, they shut down the flow, and workers climb into the cage to clear out fish, clams, plastic bottles and bags, and any military shells that may have been sucked up by the tanker offshore. That’s a good thing, because rolling over on your blanket to find yourself staring at a hunk of large-caliber unexploded ordnance (i.e., a really big, live bullet) generally doesn’t make for a festive beach day.

Anyway, as the slurry is being pumped out, the jumbo bulldozers continually push it back and forth, away from the discharge end of the pipe, grading and smoothing it to a uniform level from the inland side of the beach down to the surf. Their goal is to restore the beaches to conditions better than they were before Superstorm Sandy, and based on what they’ve completed in Bradley Beach so far, they’ve done that. The beach appears to be just as wide as it was before that storm.

The only problem I have with the project is that they completed the last major beach replenishment project in 2001, and the one before that was some time in the ’90s. Clearly, no matter what we do, the ocean eventually claws the sand right back.

Now don’t get me wrong. As an owner of a home nearby, I’m thrilled that our government sees fit to throw good sand after bad, decade after decade. Maybe they’ll keep funding this kind of Sisyphean fun as long as I’m alive so I’ll always have an expansive swath of beach on which to lay my head.

But is this really a good long-term use of our tax money? I guess it keeps the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers busy. After all, what would they do if it they didn’t have beaches to replenish? Fix our rusted-out, rickety highway bridges? Replace aging water pipes and upgrade the electrical generation and transmission infrastructure so we don’t risk blackouts every summer?

Come on. That stuff’s too easy. And none of it’s half as much fun as pushing around a million stoves’ worth of slurry in the world’s biggest sandbox.