Reshma Ragoonath & James Whittaker
Parts of Seven Mile Beach have disappeared in the aftermath of a series of storms, sparking concern about the long-term future of Cayman’s greatest natural asset.
Property owners and environmental officials say the erosion at the northern end of the beach is some of the worst they have ever seen.
Cayman’s coastlines have taken a beating from the passage of numerous storms – most recently Hurricane Iota – that generated wave action that has claimed prime beachfront from several properties.
The Marriott Beach Resort, and Dart-owned properties Royal Palms and Coral Beach, have all lost beachfront. The extreme northern end of Seven Mile Beach, from Alfresco restaurant to the boat-launching ramp, has also been seriously impacted while Governor’s Beach and Public Beach have also been left with gaping shelves of absent sand.
“Last year we thought we have seen our beach at its worst, but the current conditions are even worse,“ Daniela Rico, director of sales and marketing at the Marriott told the Cayman Compass via email Thursday.
“Beach erosion has become a reoccurring event for us over the past couple of years, although we have never experienced the erosion to the extent of its current state,” she said.
Kenneth Hydes, Dart vice president of special projects and partnerships, responding to a Compass query on the recent loss of the beach, said, “A certain amount of movement of sand along Seven Mile Beach is expected throughout the year depending on the season and level of storm activity. The number and intensity of the recent storms is atypical and unusually high.”
Long-term solution needed
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said its staff had been surveying the beach in the aftermath of the storm, and agreed the erosion was the worst they had seen in many years.
She said the situation needed to be carefully managed amid the continued threat of storm activity.
“Obviously we have seen this situation close to the Marriott before, where there is fairly deep water right up to the wall, but we have never seen it extend as far to the north and the south as it has on this occasion.”
She said the department had raised the issue this week with the National Conservation Council, which includes representatives from planning, agriculture and the National Trust.
Ebanks-Petrie said the recommendation coming out of those discussions was that the impacted ministries and sectors – including tourism, planning and environment – would need to work together on a plan to protect Seven Mile Beach, one of Cayman’s most precious assets.
Hew concerned over beach loss
Infrastructure Minister and George Town North MLA Joey Hew is leading the charge on government’s efforts to update Cayman’s development strategy, Plan Cayman, which will look at setbacks for properties building near the water.
Hew finds the beach loss worrying.
“Rising sea levels and the beach erosion have to be taken seriously and if we have to change the way we develop to achieve the setbacks and improved vegetation lines then we should do [it,]” he told the Cayman Compass Thursday.
Hew said any mitigation efforts would need to be approved, or even led, by the Department of Environment.
He said Plan Cayman is about to embark on a six-week consultation process about the future of the Seven Mile Beach area and he hopes to get wide input on the issue.
The minister said extended setbacks for new developments could be part of the solution.
“What is obvious is that the sea walls are a contributing factor [to the beach loss] and it is my hope that at the end of the Plan Cayman review of Seven Mile Beach that we return to setbacks being from the historical vegetation lines,” he said.
Ebanks-Petrie added that the underlying problem was that properties had been built too close to the water, on the active beach.
She said it was imperative that any proposed intervention did not make the problem worse.
Solution a challenge
Rico said the Marriott has contracted engineering consultants to help find a solution to the ongoing beach loss.
“Our section of Seven Mile Beach has been affected the most by extreme weather conditions and we are trying to collectively address our concerns around this worsening situation and look for potential solutions with our neighbouring properties,” she added.
In the interim, she says she is hopeful that the beach will return as tides recede.
“We have dealt with this situation in prior years, while sustaining high occupancies over peak periods. We remain hopeful the situation will improve over the next months, as it has done historically, for when we are ready to welcome back our guests,” she added.
Beach nourishment project
In January, the DoE completed its review of a proposal from the Marriott, which involved a system of sand-filled mattresses and ‘geotubes’, intended to help preserve the sandy beach in front of the hotel during winter storms.
A coastal-engineering report, prepared by consultants Olson Associates on behalf of the DoE, had suggested that solution was unworkable. Instead the consultants recommended a $1.25 million beach-nourishment project to replace lost sand along a 1,000-foot stretch of coastline fronting the Marriott, Tamarind Bay, Regal Beach Club and South Bay Beach Club at the southern end of the beach.
Ebanks-Petrie said the DoE still supports that policy as a short-term solution.
Longer term, the department advocates for a cross-government effort to deal with the underlying problem of development too close to the water.
In an earlier interview with the Compass, Wendy Johnston, of the DoE’s technical review committee, suggested slowly moving infrastructure off the beach over the coming years.
“There is a process called managed retreat, which some [places], including Hawaii, have adopted to start removing and repositioning hard structures off the active beach,” she said.
“In the long term, there are limited options to hold back the sea against development positioned too close to the water. Beaches advance and retreat naturally and we need to give them enough room to flex through the use of appropriate development setbacks.”