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- by Erinn Lawrie, Executive Director, Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation

Our sandy beaches are a great place for recreation and relaxation, providing high value to communities and the local economy. With greater demand for beaches comes greater stress on these fragile ecosystems. In order to make sound decisions in managing our beaches, it is critical that we understand how they function. Beaches are part of a system that includes the beach we sit, walk or run on, along with the sand dune, the sandy lakebed, and sand bars. It all operates together as a system; if we damage one part of this system, we prevent it from functioning properly overall. Indiscriminate use of dunes can destroy thousands of years of geologic processes in a very short period of time.

Water levels on Lake Huron are always changing, and over the long-term we can see the lake levels fluctuate within a range of about 2 vertical metres between highs and lows. We are currently experiencing high water levels, which can make things more difficult, with reduced space for human use. During low lake levels, dune vegetation will migrate lakeward through its underground root systems, colonizing areas of the upper beach. Marram grass is one of the primary dune species that helps to anchor sand and build the dune. Without this dune vegetation, sand drifting and sand loss from the beach would be a serious problem. This can result in a wet beach with more coarse sand, which is much less attractive to tourists and can harbour E. coli. Wet beaches can also encourage the growth of wetland-type plants not usually found in a beach environment. Without dunes, our beautiful sandy beaches would erode away. During high lake levels sand dunes act as a reservoir of sand that the lake 'borrows', building offshore sand bars. Along many parts of the Lake Huron coastline, beaches and dunes are considered geologic relics—sand deposits which were deposited centuries ago when the coastal geologic conditions were much different than today. These sand beaches should be considered a non-renewable resource that must be conserved. This means that understanding natural coastal processes is essential, ensuring that we are not causing our beaches to degrade over time.

It has become especially apparent recently that there are some coastal communities who thrive on tourism beachrakingthat use raking methods to groom and clean their beaches of garbage. As a scientific-based environmental agency with over 20-years-experience in coastal management along Lake Huron, it is the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation's opinion that beach management practices that include mechanized grooming of the beach can be destructive and have long-range implications for the sustainability of the beach-dune system.

The practice of beach grooming can have long-term negative effects on beach erosion and shore ecology. The process of beach grooming, which has been done at a number of beaches for aesthetic purposes, can make erosion worse, in that sand is lost from the dune system, interrupting the beach-dune cycle. Sand blown beyond the foredune (or 'first dune') represents a permanent loss to the system.

Raking has three key negative consequences:

​Wet sand is drawn up and aerated, contributing to drying out of the sand and making the fine sands more vulnerable to wind erosion. High winds can transport fine sands a considerable distance inland, leaving coarse sands behind.

Raking can destroy new dune vegetation establishing at the leading edge of the dune. Although seedlings in this 'embryo' dune often become buried by wind-blown sand, they will usually grow through the new sand layer and continue to stabilize the area. Dune grasses are not "weeds" or "invasive" and are critical to a healthy functioning beach.

The beach ecosystem is a habitat and feeding ground for a mosaic of wildlife, including shorebirds, invertebrates, reptiles, terrestrial insects and vegetation. Beach raking removes organic debris that washes up on the beach forming a "strand line". This organic detritus provides food for shorebirds, and releases valuable nutrients into the beach substrate. These nutrients, in turn, are used by beach plants.

Excessive debris such as large logs and garbage can be removed from the beach, however conducting regular scheduled raking produces a sterile beach environment. Aside from the ecological effects of raking, there are compelling economic reasons for reconsidering the practice of beach raking. Healthy dunes provide free shore protection against flooding and windblown sand, and losses of sand from the beach-dune system represent a loss to this protective capacity during storm events. The value of a beach dune system simply as shore protection has been estimated at about $3,000 per linear metre. Sand dunes also act as a natural water filter, and reduce maintenance costs by preventing sand drifting.

The dunes at Sauble Beach have an impressive biological diversity, with a number of globally and provincially rare species, such as the Pitcher's Thistle. Extremely rare Species at Risk, such as the Piping Plover, rely on these sensitive environments as primary breeding, nesting and feeding habitat, making the need for protection and rehabilitation of beach and dune environments critical for the survival of the species. It is important to understand that shorebirds like the Piping Plover rely on a fully functioning healthy beach and dune ecosystem, which includes open sand, vegetative dune cover, and a strand line for foraging.

Many Lake Huron jurisdictions with significant public beach use have not embarked on a raking program (e.g. Pinery Park), or have strict guidelines around the practice (e.g. Huron-Kinloss). A number of American jurisdictions (e.g. Palm Beach County, Florida) have reevaluated their raking programs, based on their environmental impacts, and have radically scaled back their programs. It is recommended that beach managers consider implementing a beach cleaning program that is more environmentally appropriate. Large raking machines in current use could be replaced by beach clean-up staff picking up litter manually. Other alternatives could include working with local groups to develop an "Adopt-a-beach" program where volunteers look after a section of the waterfront. Regularly scheduled beach grooming is indiscriminate, allowing for unnecessary raking to occur. There may be occasions when mechanical raking is considered unavoidable (e.g. excessive debris washing up on the beach, garbage accumulated after a holiday weekend), but generally it is unnecessary and can be harmful to the beach. Municipalities should review what conditions constitute a need for raking and develop clear guidelines. Some of the alternatives to regular grooming that would help to protect beach ecology include: no grooming; hand grooming; seasonal, zonal or rotational grooming, and; threshold grooming, or strand line removal beyond a certain density or height.

The notion of a "pristine" or "clean" beach, clear of everything but sand, is one that fails to recognize the life that forms, and relies on, the beach ecosystem. Beaches are far from lifeless. The needs of tourism and beach visitors can be mitigated to benefit the coastal environment with little to no impact to the economic wellbeing of the community. Kincardine Main Beach has been a shining example that beach conservation and tourism are not mutually exclusive, and that dunes and the presence of dune vegetation on a well-managed shoreline can improve the visitor experience.

The Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation developed a beach management plan for Sauble Beach in 2004 which can be viewed at www.lakehuron.ca/stewardship-plans-and-guides. We encourage the Town of South Bruce Peninsula to revisit this plan when developing an updated beach management strategy, and we would like to offer our support in developing a scientifically-sound plan that strives to accommodate the needs of the beach-dune system while maintaining the beach for recreation and tourism. Stewardship efforts will not only ensure a healthy beach ecosystem and allow Species at Risk to thrive, but will help improve the waterfront-based economy of Sauble Beach. The Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation encourages those interested in learning more about beaches and dunes to visit www.lakehuron.ca/beaches-and-dunes or contact [email protected].

 

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