Combatting Coastal Erosion In Cape Cod With Coconut Fiber Rolls Beachfront homeowner Laura Wing in Sandwich, Mass., says the sand in front of her house is eroding away. Her best option is to create man-made dunes by installing huge fiber rolls along the shore.
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As Dunes Disappear, Fiber Rolls Protect Cape Cod Homes From Coastal Erosion

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As Dunes Disappear, Fiber Rolls Protect Cape Cod Homes From Coastal Erosion

As Dunes Disappear, Fiber Rolls Protect Cape Cod Homes From Coastal Erosion

As Dunes Disappear, Fiber Rolls Protect Cape Cod Homes From Coastal Erosion

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/711097302/711536633" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Uncovered fiber rolls in front of a private home on Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, Mass. Made from coconut fiber and filled with sand, they are designed to prevent beach erosion. Hayley Fager/WCAI hide caption

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Hayley Fager/WCAI

Uncovered fiber rolls in front of a private home on Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, Mass. Made from coconut fiber and filled with sand, they are designed to prevent beach erosion.

Hayley Fager/WCAI

Along the East Coast, spring typically means serious erosion caused by strong storms. This year, homeowners on Cape Cod, Mass., are bracing for the worst.

Laura Wing lives in a beachfront home in Sandwich. She inherited the house from her parents 40 years ago, but the beach has changed a lot since then.

"The dunes went much further out on the beach, so over all this time it's just eroded away to what it is now," she said.

These days the water is 50 feet from her home at high tide. It's typical to have houses right on the shore on Cape Cod, and storms can cause a lot of damage.

Wing has a costly decision to make: whether to invest $30,000 in fiber rolls, the most resilient method for slowing erosion that Massachusetts homeowners are allowed to use.

The rolls are made from coconut fiber and are buried in sandy slopes in front of homes, to absorb wave energy and hold sand in place. They are filled with sand or coconut fiber and planted with grasses and shrubs; they end up looking like dunes.

Laura Wing in front of her beachfront home in Sandwich. Wing has not installed fiber rolls. This natural dune helps protect her home from erosion for now, but spring storms could make it vulnerable. Hayley Fager/WCAI hide caption

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Hayley Fager/WCAI

Laura Wing in front of her beachfront home in Sandwich. Wing has not installed fiber rolls. This natural dune helps protect her home from erosion for now, but spring storms could make it vulnerable.

Hayley Fager/WCAI

But whatever Wing decides to do with her property could also affect erosion on nearby public beaches. According to Dave Deconto, the director of natural resources for Sandwich, there is a beach in town where public and private land meet. The private homes on the beach have fiber rolls in front of them — the beach next to the rolls is pretty washed out and has lost a lot of sand. That's because whenever you construct a dune, even a fiber roll dune, there's going to be more erosion where the dune ends and the beach begins.

There are other options for slowing erosion. One method uses barriers to break up the wave action before it hits the coastline, but it hasn't been approved by Massachusetts environmental regulators.

Deconto says whatever homeowners decide, all of the fixes are temporary. "Mother Nature's gonna do what Mother Nature does," says Deconto. "Every town on the coastline of Massachusetts is dealing with it; every community along the Eastern Seaboard, and the Gulf Coast, and the West Coast of the United States are dealing with it."

Fiber rolls are mostly being used by private homeowners right now because the high cost can be a barrier for small coastal towns and most buildings on public beaches are farther inland and not as vulnerable as beachfront homes.

Massachusetts officials recommend fiber rolls because they have a lower impact on natural habitats than other methods for slowing erosion. The good news is, they are biodegradable. The bad news is, that means they have to be reinstalled as often as every five years, though some may last decades. The price can vary from $200 to $2,000 per square foot, depending on where they are installed and the materials that are used.

Seth Wilkinson, who installs these systems, he says he has had some hard conversations with homeowners. "And they're saying, 'I don't think I can afford to live here anymore. Repairing this bank or stabilizing this bank will cost more than the value of my home.' "

Wing says she isn't going to install fiber rolls for now. "I can't cover that kind of expense by renting the house, so that just comes out of my savings. And I'm retired." She says she is taking things one year at a time and hopes she doesn't lose her home in a storm before she decides to sell.