JACKSONVILLE, Florida (April 26, 2022) – For Matt, every day is Earth Day. A plumber and longtime Florida resident, his passion has led him to a career and a life of working with nature.
On a cloudy afternoon, I met Matt on Jacksonville’s Atlantic Coast, so he could talk about dunes, sediments, and finding a balance between engineered and nature-based solutions. Oh, and of course, a little love of the sea.
Matt, a coastal engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), District of Jacksonville, has worked most of the 65,000 miles that make up the South Atlantic Coastal Studies area and play on 1,350 miles of the Florida coast. As we stood at the beach entrance of Seventh Street, he showed me an ancient black and white photo taken after Hurricane Dora in 1964 that he zoomed in on the same spot.
He told me, “There, there’s a seawall, and in front of that seawall, we put 60 to 100 feet of just a “flat beach” or embankment. Back then, people didn’t want sand dunes. They got rid of them and built on top of them. They don’t want it because it blocks the view of the sea. We have reports from the time that the dunes are unsightly and take up valuable recreational areas. At one time, the dunes here were bigger.”
During that period, beaches were built for erosion control and recreation.
I was really interested to know how USACE realized the importance of the dune and Matt revealed how it came to be after one food project in the seventies.
“The wind started blowing, and the pools and people’s yards started to fill with sand because the wind blew all the sand off our beach. Then the locals came and started putting up sand fences and planting vegetation to stop the sand blowing and building dunes. It was a local effort; communities built their dunes at first, then nature built them into what you see today.”
Matt points out that the dune was recently included in a federal project, which still includes a flat beach in front of the dune. The USACE engineering and planning team did a lot of research and through their studies they were told by what they saw; after 30 years, these dunes serve as barriers providing protection for critical infrastructure, property as well as securing important habitat for birds, nesting turtles and other wildlife.
Matt stood on his feet, pointed down at the perfect wave-like pattern that formed around the base of the dune, and said, “One of the things that makes a dune such a cool structure is the way it’s made. Right now, it’s quite windy, isn’t it. ? So when you look at this pattern in the sand, it’s created by the wind.”
I lowered my camera lens to snap a photo of the pattern, and I could see what he was talking about. Tiny particles of sand swirl in air currents. Matt explains how the beach is alive, and the sand is constantly moving. So the wind doesn’t just carry the sand, but the ocean and its currents play a role. Dunes are formed by the movement of sand particles.
The dunes are not the same size and may even be the same shape as they used to be. This is where engineering with nature comes in, Matt is part of an engineering and planning team that uses the principles of engineer with nature. The team studies, develops and disseminates natural processes and natural and nature-based features that are intentionally integrated into our nation’s vital infrastructure. The aim is to maximize project sustainability and increase resilience to natural events.
First, the engineering and planning team looked at the slope, peak elevation, and sand. Then the team optimized the design while considering cost, sea level rise, storms, storm surges, and sand as finite materials.
Channel maintenance of the Jacksonville Harbor federal navigation project on the St. River. Johns not only keeps ships with important cargo moving in and out of port, but also periodically provides a source of sand that can be placed on shore. These are Regional Sediment Management (RSM); utilize dredged sand (sediment) for navigation with the need for sand to build nature-based features such as beaches and dunes that are critical to coastal ecosystems and important for protecting communities living near the sea. Most of the beach and dune systems have been constructed with sand from the Jacksonville Harbor dredging, reducing the costs of both projects while retaining valuable sediment within the coastal system.
“For most of the nature-based features we want to build, you need sediment; not just any sand that will work. For beaches, you need sand that is similar to what would be in a natural system. The type of grain we dredge from the mouth of the St. Johns,” said Matt. “And USACE knows how to dredge, move, and build with materials. USACE is looking to the future; we need to find ways to harness dredged materials in swamp systems to provide coastal storm resistance and habitat restoration as we have done on beaches.”
USACE has been involved in RSM for many years, extracting appropriate grain size sediments that work on beaches and fertilize beaches. The Jacksonville district is slowly evolving towards engineering with nature.
The research and planning team continues to influence some of Civil Works’ priorities by being resourceful and having an ecological mindset.
Matt is passionate about finding nature-based solutions to our problems, but like any solid engineer, he shares 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 may naturally take time. We can’t do it alone. We will need agencies, state and local partners; they are just as important. with a mission.”
Celebrating Earth Day is an encouragement, a friendly reminder that without Earth, without nature, we would have no place to call home and that by conserving nature and protecting the Earth, we in turn protect ourselves. Matt is just one of many teams in the District of Jacksonville committed to caring for our planet and are part of the USACE Engineering with Nature initiative.
Ensuring environmental stability and resilience is one of the top priorities outlined in the recently released USACE Research and Development Strategy. To find out more about the strategy, visit https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll11/en/5457.