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Borough of Ocean Gate, NJ

Ocean Gate to protect its beach with 'prisms' Concrete devices may help absorb wave energy.

OCEAN GATE — If you thought it was cold last week, be glad you didn't have Jay McKenna's job of wading in the Toms River to mark out Ocean Gate's new beach breakwater.

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Saving the Ocean Gate, NJ boardwalk


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Update: after a storm in late 2016 

“I set those stakes out. Not looking forward to going back in,” McKenna quipped, shivering a little in the wind Nov. 25 as the engine on a front-end loader snorted and the backup alarm beeped, the machine and driver hauling precast concrete shapes onto the beach.

McKenna is regional sales manager for Virginia-based Smith-Midland, a concrete products company that makes Beach Prisms — breakwater units of various sizes, but essentially the same design. With a concave curve on one face and triangular openings, the wedges form a porous underwater wall that breaks and dissipates wave energy before it can scour sand off a beach. The units going in at Ocean Gate are about 4 feet high, and will just be visible from shore. The hope is they will protect the newly rebuilt beach and boardwalk in this borough at the mouth of the river, which got a beating from superstorm Sandy.

But the project had its start long before the storm — about three years ago, as borough officials and residents cast about for ways to deal with the already eroded beach, Mayor Paul J. Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he learned of the Smith-Midland beach devices from a riverside resident. But much of the delay was due to a back-and-forth between the borough, state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had attempted a beach fill at the site about a decade ago.

"I really pressed them after the storm," Kennedy said. Other experts suggested protecting the beach with sand berms or rock riprap, but "I said, you're talking about $1 million here. He (McKenna) could do prisms in three sectors for about $150,000."

The agencies have agreed to a trial project in three phases, with the first batch of 35 units going in this week at $1,275 per 10-foot piece. Just five were emplaced Monday before the loader bogged down in soft sand, and the mid-week storm pushed resumption of work back to Friday, Kennedy said.

It's early to tell, but in watching the prisms absorb waves and boat wakes, it looks like they could work, Kennedy said.

"It's not going to prevent flooding," he cautioned. "It's for the beach erosion."

Wedge-shaped breakwater structures have been tried before, notably at Cape May Point in the 1990s, to control erosion hot spots. McKenna credits the initial concept behind his company's products to Silvia Goldsborough, a British-born Chesapeake Bay resident who years ago noticed how sand accumulated around old World War II beach defenses along the English Channel.

Widespread erosion problems make the Chesapeake region a major market for Beach Prisms, and McKenna says the company is working in a lot of far-flung locations — from Wallops Island, Va., where the devices were set out to help protect the end of a runway at the NASA launch facility there, to the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii to protect homes threatened by big winter surf.

There could be one side benefit to the breakwater, McKenna speculated. In some locations setting out these concrete pieces creates what fishermen and biologists call hard structure — places where marine animals like barnacles and shellfish can anchor, and in turn attract other animals that shelter and feed among the growth.

Up until the early 1960s, Ocean Gate had natural hard structure — oyster beds in the river, both wild and cultivated. Not far away there's an ongoing oyster restoration project at Good Luck Point, just outside the mouth of the river. Ocean Gate has hosted one of the oyster nursery tanks for that project on its municipal pier.

Kennedy said he told McKenna about that history. "You'll be growing them on there," McKenna responded.