Coast Chronicles: 
Sand, glorious sand

Our beach sand is a valuable resource.

When I was a kid, I had my own bucket, shovel and sand box. There is something calming and mesmerizing about filling a bucket with sand, pouring it out, and filling it again. These were the days when kids were mostly on their own to entertain themselves and even get dirty doing it. I think I have a picture of myself at two or three in a sun suit and bonnet sitting like a fat chicken in the sand shoveling up a cloud of dust.

Later in life, at the beach in the summer, we kids would roam out over the dunes jumping, rolling, dancing, hiding, generally taking every advantage we could of acres of sand. Who knew it could disappear? Not us.

Those of us who have decades of history here have watched the slow encroachment of grass take over the dunes and change the ecosystem to one that’s more stable but greatly different from the stretches of open sand that existed in the “good ol’ days.” The older one gets, the more one realizes that taking anything for granted — people, places, conditions — is a dangerous notion. Everything changes.

But thus it was that a recent New Yorker article caught my eye — “The End of Sand,” by David Owen ( Owen notes that geologists define sand as “grains between 0.0625 and two millimeters across,” though this is only one of the many facets that identify the myriad types, shapes, and colors of sand.

Sand is also known as “aggregate” and as such is a critical element in everything that makes up our industrial lives. It is used for concrete, foundations, highways, filtering water and sewage systems, sandblasting and water-jet cutting; for manufacturing glass, computers, artificial hip joints, cruise missiles, manhole covers, engine blocks, golf sand traps, and foundry molds. It is used to help trains stop in their tracks; to “hold the cracks open” for oil and gas drillers, and for sporting events.

Just a few further details for glorious sand. China’s building and manufacturing boom has consumed “more sand in the previous four years than the United States used in the past century.” One typical American house needs more than a hundred tons of sand for its foundation, driveway, basement, garage or patio. A mile-long single lane highway in the U.S. requires 38,000 tons of sand. (In China, when they’ve completed their projected 165,000 miles of roads by 2030, that will be three and a half times the number of miles in our interstate highway system.)

The Féderation Internationale de Volleyball (FIFA) has set a specific standard for sand usage for Olympic volleyball and other sand-based sports. FIFA specs include characteristics for shape, size, and hardness. Todd Knapton, vice-president of Hutcheson Sand & Mixes in Ontario, purveyors of Olympic sand, says, “You want to see the players buried up to their ankles. Rain or shine, hot or cold, it should be like a kid trying to ride a bicycle through marbles.” Our beach sand is much too hard. Outdoor volleyball sand must drain well to stay fluffy, so it needs large voids between particles. Desert sand is always rounded because it’s windblown; beach sand is more angular, generally with a high proportion of tiny shell pieces, and — increasingly more likely — a large percentage of plastic bits.

Sand gathered for Olympic sports must be sourced close to the event to be cost effective: for the games in London, the sand came from Surrey; for Athens, it came from Belgium. In fact, one engineer notes that transporting sand for ordinary construction from more than sixty miles away is too expensive. As it turns out, now we have unauthorized “sand mafias” — that is, criminal enterprises that raid and take sand from rivers, beaches, mines and quarries.

Scraping sand up in the process of dredging damages the sea floor; and dumping it just anywhere changes water flow patterns and has other dire consequences. Dale Beasley Ilwaco resident, crabber, fisherman, and member of the Lower Columbia Solutions Group (LCSG), has been saying this for years. Dredging spoils scraped up to clear harborways and entrances then dumped out at sea plays havoc with boat operators, as it changes currents into sometimes lethal chop. It can also suffocate crabs and other bottom-dwellers when the dredge barges open their maws and plop tons of spoils at once.

This long beach is a result of the enormous flow of the Columbia River depositing silt (just below sand on the size scale; gravel is just above) over the years as the currents swing around the basalt headlands of Cape Disappointment. Our little finger of land is a spit, and for awhile in the ‘40s and ‘50s our beaches were gaining sand and, therefore, land mass. (Hence, the advantage of having a property line that extended to “Mean High Tide” as that would enlarge one’s property when the beach widened.) That process of accretion is over. Now we are losing sand.

Which brings up my next point. We have in our Revised Code for Washington (RCWs) and Pacific County policy on the books that requires permits and payment for sand that is taken from our beaches. But how often does this actually happen? And, perhaps even more relevant, why is this still a good idea when it’s our primary and secondary dunes that provide protection in the case of a tsunami or storm surge. (Wetlands provide the same service. Florida and Texas are currently experiencing the hazards of messing with these natural gifts.)

I won’t name names, but I have often seen trucks on the beach scooping up load after load of our sand to haul off for various uses. Are the permits in order? And, again, why do we even allow this? It’s true, we need sand for various county projects; but let’s not think that our sand is an unlimited supply.

As Owen points out, “Sand — natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water.” I think we can take that statement at face value, rather than with a grain of sand.


And finally, one last reminder invitation to a poetry reading by our Washington State poet laureate Tod Marshall; eminent author, poet and naturalist Bob Pyle; and yours truly this coming Sunday, Sept. 17, 4 p.m. at the historic Oysterville home of Sydney and Nyel Stevens. RSVP at We’d love to see you there.

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