JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Apr. 26, 2022) – For Matt, every day is Earth Day. A waterman and long-time Florida resident, his passion led him to a career and life of working with nature.
On a partly cloudy afternoon, I met Matt on Jacksonville's Atlantic Beach, so he could talk about dunes, sediment, and finding a balance between manufactured and nature-based engineering solutions. Oh, and of course, a bit of his love of the ocean.
Matt, a coastal engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Jacksonville District, has worked most of the 65,000 miles that make up the South Atlantic Coastal Study area and played on the 1,350 miles of Florida's coast. As we stood at the Seventh Street entrance of the beach, he showed me an old-timey black and white photo taken after Hurricane Dora in 1964 that he had enlarged of that very same spot.
He tells me, "Right there, there was a seawall, and in front of that seawall, we put 60 to 100 feet of just "flat beach" or berm. At that time, people didn't want the dunes. They removed them and built on top of them. They didn't want them because they blocked the ocean view. We have reports from the time that say dunes are unsightly and take up valuable recreation space. At one time, the dunes that were here were bigger."
During that period, beaches were constructed for erosion control and recreation.
I was particularly interested in discovering how USACE realized the importance of dunes and Matt revealed how it happened after one nourishment project in the seventies.
"The wind started blowing, and people's pools and yards started filling up with sand because the wind was blowing all the sand off our beach. Then the locals came and started put-up to sand fences and planted vegetation to stop the sand from blowing and build into a dune. It was a local effort; the community built their dune initially, then nature built it into what you see today."
Matt points out that the dune has recently been incorporated into the federal project, which still includes the flat beach in front of the dune. The USACE engineering and planning team did a great deal of research and through their study, they were informed by what they saw.; after 30 years, these dunes functioned as a barrier providing protection for critical infrastructure, property along with securing crucial habitat for birds, nesting sea turtles, and other wildlife.
Matt perches on his feet, points down at the perfect wave-like pattern that forms around the base of the dune, and says "One of the things that makes dunes such a cool structure is how it is created. Right now, it's pretty windy, right? And so, when you look at this pattern in the sand, it was created by the wind."
I lower the lens of my camera to take a photo of the pattern, and I can see what he is talking about. Teeny tiny particles of sand circled about in the current of air. Matt explains how the coast is alive, and the sand is constantly moving. So not only does the wind carry sand, but the ocean and its currents play a role. The dunes are shaped by the movement sand particles.
The dunes are not the same size and possibly even the same shape that they once were. This is where engineering with nature comes in, Matt is part of an engineering and planning team that use engineer with nature principles. The team studies, develops and deploys natural processes as well as natural and nature-based features that are intentionally integrated into our nation’s vital infrastructure. The goal is to maximize the sustainability of projects and enhance resilience to natural events.
First, the engineering and planning team looks at the slopes, crest elevation, and sand. Then the team optimizes the design while considering the cost, sea-level rise, storms, storm surges, and sand as a finite material.
Channel maintenance of the nearby Jacksonville Harbor federal navigation project on the St. Johns River not only keeps ships with important cargo moving in and out of the port, but it also periodically provides a source of sand that can be placed on the beach. This is Regional Sediment Management (RSM); leveraging the sand (sediment) dredged for navigation with the need for sand to construct nature-based features like beaches and dunes which are critical to the coastal ecosystem and crucial to protecting the communities living near the ocean. A significant portion of the beach and dune system has been constructed with sand from Jacksonville Harbor dredging, decreasing the cost of both projects while maintaining the valuable sediment within the coastal system.
"For most nature-based features that we want to construct, you need sediment; not just any sand will work. For the beach, you need sand that is similar to what would be in the natural system. The type of grain that we dredge from the St. Johns River mouth," said Matt. "And USACE knows how to dredge, move and build with the material. It's looking to the future; we need to figure out how to beneficially use dredged material in the marsh systems to provide coastal storm resilience and habitat restoration like we have been doing on the beaches."
USACE has been involved in RSM for years, taking sediment with the appropriate grain size that works on the beach and nourishing the beaches. The Jacksonville district was slowly growing its way towards engineering with nature.
The team's research and planning continue to impact several Civil Works priorities by being resourceful and having an ecological mindset.
Matt is very passionate about finding nature-based solutions for our problems, but like any solid engineer, he shared some wisdom.
"There has to be a balance. Yes, we can find nature-based solutions, but we will need some engineering to compensate for what might naturally take time. We can't do it alone. We will need our sister agencies, state and local partners; they are just as critical to the mission."
Celebrating Earth Day is a nudge, a friendly reminder that without Earth, without nature, we would have no place to call home and that by preserving nature and protecting the Earth, we are in turn, protecting ourselves. Matt is just one of the many on the Jacksonville District’s team that is committed to caring for our planet and is part of USACE’s Engineering with Nature initiative.
Ensuring environmental stability and resilience is among the top priorities outlined in the recently released USACE Research and Development Strategy. For more on the strategy, visit https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll11/id/5457.