Confronted with photos of deep ponding behind newly constructed dunes on Margate beaches, an Army Corps of Engineers project manager was at a loss for solutions Wednesday even as the corps asked a federal judge to allow the project to continue.
"I would ask for suggestions," testified Keith Watson, the corps project manager for the Absecon Island Storm Damage Reduction project, when asked by Margate's attorney, Jordan Rand, what could be done "right now" to ease the problem.
The parties were in U.S. District Court in Camden before Judge Renee Marie Bumb five days after a state Superior Court judge in Atlantic County ordered the $63 million, federally funded dune and beach replenishment project halted so the parties could work out a solution to the drainage issue, which has led to a half-mile of ponding between the dunes and the bulkhead after several recent rainfalls.
The Army Corps attended one meeting with the city the day after the state judge's ruling was issued and did not return, city officials said. The corps filed a motion in federal court asking that the state order be lifted. The state Department of Environmental Protection was present in court but did not join the action. Bumb did not rule and did not indicate when she would. The restraining order expires on Friday.
The situation on the Jersey Shore town's beach came into sharper relief when Gary Brown, an environmental engineer testifying on Margate's behalf, called the ponded water a vast public health hazard. The basins behind the dunes, he said, were "wastewater lagoons" and breeding grounds for parasites.
The ponding has angered residents and city officials, who say it presents a health and safety risk, long- and short-term, and cuts them off from their beaches. Four members of the Margate City Beach Patrol were in court — all in shorts, one in flip-flops — to testify about rashes they say were the result of bacteria in the pond, as well as the risk to small children from the water, which was 3 feet deep in places, and out of sight of lifeguard stands.
Beach Patrol Lt. Chuck LaBarre said he was caught off guard when the corps asked him for solutions to the ponding issue. "They were looking to me for an answer," he said, "which is why I became seriously concerned."
Bumb previously dismissed a Margate-hired engineer's predictions of bacteria-, mosquito-, and oil-filled ponding as "fantastical," and ordered the project to proceed over Margate's objections.
Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Gov. Christie ordered that dunes be built along the state's 127-mile coastline. Congress authorized the funding.
Asked whether the corps' design, which calls for a trench behind the dunes to collect storm water, resulting in routine ponding that lasts 24 to 36 hours, was acceptable, Watson responded, "I have no answer for that."
Watson said the ponding had exceeded predictions. One possible solution, making the trenches more shallow, might lead to more street flooding, he said. The trenches were incorporated into the design because Margate had previously drained storm-water runoff by digging trenches from the bulkheads to the ocean to allow the water to seep into the sand and ocean. The dunes now block that.
Watson's testimony outraged residents who packed the hearing and have mobilized in recent weeks to decry the damage they say is being done to beaches they considered pristine prior to the project.
"He's stumped," said Debby Bleznak, "They don't even know how to fix the problem. The solution is to fill the holes. Put the sand back. Do not do Longport. Longport! Save your beaches."
Margate's attorney, Rand, noting that months of work went into the Army Corps' engineering study, asked: "Would you agree that an equally detailed and considered approach is needed to determine what to do next?"
Rand said: "The Army Corps won't know for how long now how to solve this problem, but wants to keep building anyway."
"That's correct," Watson said.
Wednesday afternoon, a corps engineer, Andrew Schwaiger, testified that a long-term solution could only be figured out after the project was completed.
Leaving the dunes half-finished would leave the beaches vulnerable to hurricanes, a larger threat to public safety. "What if I wait a month and a hurricane hits?" he asked.
Bumb seemed to be looking for short-term assurance that the corps could get rid of the ponding, which would allow the impasse to be resolved "properly and soon."
There was talk about fencing, immediate pumping, and building walkways during the seven hours of testimony. .
The construction, especially at the height of summer, has left local residents and those with summer homes distressed.
Mayor Michael Becker called the emotional toll "worse than Hurricane Sandy."
"I'm sick to my stomach," said Patti DeRoo, who lives at Essex Avenue and the beach. "I grew up on these beaches. I've been nauseous since the day they started."
After hearing Brown's testimony, she said, "It shows what everybody's been saying. It's a polluted cesspool."