New Smyrna Inlet Jetty

oneworld editor’s note/correction: Some of you early risers may have read an version of this story that listed Sebastian Inlet as the threatened surf spot. Well, your humble editor made a royal screw up. In fact, it’s New Smyrna Inlet, which is to the north. I surfed Sebastian Inlet one time, 18 years ago, and had been under the impression that Sebastian/Smyrna inlets were one and the same. So, I plead geographic ignorance — though this is particularly inexcusable given the fact that I lived in W. Palm Beach for a year in 1999/2000 and should have known better. In fact, New Smyrna Inlet is north of Cape Canaveral. Sebastian is to the south of the Cape. Both have a unique jetty setups that lead to their wave-magnetism and thus my stupid confusion. Mez and Dugan, I expect to be chastised in the next issue of ESM — Chris Dixon.

Another Thousand Feet of Rock.

Will a Jetty Extension Destroy the Surf at New Smyrna Inlet?

A Conversation with Randy Richenberg of Save Smyrna Inlet.

The North Side of the Jetties Booming.
Photo Courtesy: Dugan/Surfline

By Chris Dixon

Randy Richenberg has been shaping surfboards and riding the consistent surf around New Smyrna Florida for around three decades. In that time, he has watched his sleepy little community grow by leaps and bounds. As a youngster, he even watched as the Army Corps of Engineers dropped the rocks of the Ponce/New Smyrna Inlet jetties to stabilize the inlet for boat traffic. Of course, an unintended consequence of these jetties was that they created offshore shoals and sandbars that tended to magnify the waves here. In fact, they magnified them a lot. The offshoot of this, was of course, a burgeoning surf scene in the areas north of Cape Canaveral.

But the New Smyrna surf scene is currently under threat from an Army Corps project to extend the south jetty a thousand more feet offshore. To find out more, we spoke at length with Richenberg about the project. He has led a drive to have the surfers of the New Smyrna area heard, and with a website, and concerted push, these efforts are bearing some fruit. But this is one controversy that’s a long way from over. How it turns out may affect everything from Kevin Welsh’s next NRG video to your next session on a booming Northeast swell. Read on…

Chris Dixon: Randy, you’ve got some history here. I suppose that would give you some credibility to speak as an advocate and as someone who understands the ebb and flow of sand and water here.

Randy Richenberg: I’m also a pretty avid offshore fisherman. I’ve been in and out of the inlet in a boat a lot and have also dived in the inlet too.

CD: Right now, there are two different length jetties at New Smyrna. Tell us more about the setup there.

RR: The north side has a really long jetty. The south side originally had a fairly long jetty too, I don’t remember how long exactly, but as the sand accreted at the inlet and there was buildup, it shortened the jetty until it’s now only about 100 feet long.

CD: Is that because the sand moves predominately south to north or north to south?

RR: The dynamics of that inlet are so complex that I think the Army Corps hasn’t been able to figure it out — even with the millions of dollars in computernumeric and physical modeling and everything else.

Basically, we’ve got a major sand buildup to the south, but that’s just the dynamics of the inlet. That’s the way it happens. You get weather events that come from the south like as tropical events then you get wintertime events that come from the north. It’s dependent on weather, tides, rainfall, waves and currents — you’ve got 500 variables there.

CD: Describe the breaks in that area.

Shea Lopez Perfected his Technique on New Smyrna’s Peaks.
Photo Courtesy: Surfline/Carey

The thing with New Smyrna is that it’s a very unique area — being located fairly close to the Cape (Canaveral) on the north side and the way that the inlet has settled in as far as the shoaling offshore — it’s able to pull in swells that are so small, and kind of focus and amplify them and send them in to the beach here. That’s what gives us the consistency. We’re probably one of the more consistent breaks on the East Coast– especially during the summer months when it’s flat for so long. You go down the beach and it’s maybe not even knee high, but the inlet will be waist to chest high. It’s just a lot of unique circumstances there: One: you have the ability of the inlet to pull in a swell, amplify and focus it. Two: You have such a broad area from the jetty to the condominiums is probably close to a quarter mile long, so you can accommodate a large crowd there. Then when you look at the break on a good swell, you have all manner of waves — a thick dredging wave by the jetty and then a slower, slopey wave — a longboard and funboard wave. So you’ve got a lot of factors that contribute to it being such a popular place. Then you’ve also got the Shark Shallows area that’s popular with kayakers, about an 8th of a mile offshore.

CD: When was the jetty built?
RR: I believe about 30 years ago.

CD: Why was it built?
Traditionally Ponce de Leon Inlet is looked at as a recreational inlet. The jetties were to try to help stabilize the navigation channel in the inlet. With no jetties, the sandbars would just move where they wanted to — due to the weather systems, surf and everything else. It was a little bit trickier getting in and out of it in a boat–especially on an outgoing tide with a little bit of swell.

CD: Now you’ve got the Army Corps looking to extend the south jetty.
RR: Right a thousand feet more of it. And the colonel who heads the southeast district for the Army Corps terms the whole inlet a maintenance nightmare because it would never do what they wanted it to do. They’ve been working on it for 30 years. They extended the north jetty; they put in a weir.

CD: Explain what a weir does.
RR: A weir is a concrete structure that has low spots to allow the surges and water flow over that part of the jetty. They also put a scouring apron on the inside where the channel takes a turn because it was threatening to undermine the north jetty and create a small lagoon on the north side. It was a nightmare — no matter what they did the inlet wouldn’t do what they wanted. Basically I said to the maintenance supervisor, it’s been a work in progress for the last 30 years.

CD: Why are they telling you that they want to do this extension?
RR: Basically it’s to stabilize the navigation channel. The same thing they did 30 years ago.

CD: Would you assert that it’s already stable enough as it is?
Well, some of it comes to the economics of dredging. They used to dredge it. And the dredging would be on a needs be basis — you go three years without any major weather events, the channel stays basically where it’s at and there’s not really much maintenance that needs to be done. Then you get a major weather event, it changes that bar configuration or the channel layout in the inlet, and they have to come in and dredge it. Our point was: why won’t you guys take a look at dredging versus a permanent fixture in the inlet? All the permanent fixtures you’ve put in to now have had a minimal impact on stabilizing it. The inlet is something that’s made to flex, bend and reconfigure with the swells, winds, rainfall and a million different variables. It’s a sandbar. I asked the technical advisor: if they think they can stabilize a sandbar, well then maybe they can also stop one spot in the sky and hold it there for awhile. Mother Nature made it that way. That’s how it has to bend and move with weather events.

Ponce Local John Logan.
Photo Courtesy: Dugan/Surfline

CD: All anybody has to do is to dribble some sand through their fingers on the beach. It may look like you’re looking at a permanent place. But it’s so dynamic.
RR: It’s just like the beach renourishment projects. They can spend five million dollars on a beach renourishment project, then you have a five-day weather event, and that sand is just gone. It’s going to go where it’s going to go.

CD: How much do they want to extend the jetty, and what do you think the effects will be?
RR: Well, they want to extend the south jetty 1,000 feet eastward. And Surfrider has been incredibly helpful on this whole thing — two main chapters in the state have gotten behind us and Matt Rausher, the coastal science manager out in California has been incredibly helpful in providing access to a coastal engineer who has worked for Surfrider. He said that the project would degrade the breaks in New Smyrna.

Basically what it’s going to do is throw a monkey wrench in that complex series of shoals out there that brings the waves in, amplifies them and sends them to the beach.

If you look at the layout of the jetty — I’d say 30 to 40 percent of our best surf comes from the north and northeast during winter weather events. And it’s going to shadow that for probably close to a mile down the beach. So you can just kiss those swells goodbye, they’ll be completely cut off.

Now the Army Corps, the way they make things look so rosy is to say that their study shows that it would actually increase wave height — but the trick term there is “on an outgoing tide”. Well, I don’t’ know if you’ve been out in a boat on an outgoing tide — the waves are bigger because they’re coming and the tide is going out. I told the technical advisor: five-foot chop does not contribute to quality surf.

CD: So the Corps is asserting that this is a maintenance nightmare because…
RR: Well, because they’ve been working on it for 30 years and it’s been an uncooperative inlet.

Army Corps Diagram of Their Proposal.

CD: Is your group’s assertion that a longer jetty is just going to be a longer pain in the ass for them to have to deal with?
RR: Well, that and the fact that one of their own people with the corps gave it a 15% chance of accomplishing what they wanted it to do over a seven year period. And I asked them straight up: well, I’ll tell you what, you’ve got $5.2 million, would you gamble that on a 15% chance?

And the other thing is this: in their feasibility study, they only addressed it with about a 2-inch paragraph on the recreational aspect. They didn’t address the economic impact at all. Today, New Smyrna is a main surfing destination in Florida during the summer and winter months. In turn, we have probably a half dozen surfboard manufacturers and a half a dozen surf shops in a town of 20,000. They generate anywhere from $6 to $8 million a year. When you factor that in to the feasibility study, that adds a lot of different concerns to your project. You’re leaving yourself open to the possibility of a class-action lawsuit if people lose business and money because all the sudden they had good surf that could support large crowds and now the surf’s gone, the number of people is gone and businesses are suffering because of it. That was completely overlooked in a feasibility study that was already 5 pounds and four and a half inches thick.

CD: It’s interesting that now surfers, this one time subculture group are a driving influence in this town. It’s the same way in Huntington Beach, San Clemente or Waikiki.

New Smyrna, Sout
h of the Jetty.
Photo Courtesy: Dugan/Surfline

RR: You’ve gotta understand too. When you’re dealing with politicians and officials in the government. They know absolutely nothing about surfing. You’ve got to educate them to the fact that surfing is now mainstream. It’s not as mainstream as baseball and football, but compared to what it was in the 1970’s, it’s really come into the limelight. That’s what I bring their attention to also. This is a family with a bunch of surfboards, staying at a hotel and possibly buying a house or condo here. That has a lot more economic clout than people give it credit for.

CD: What was the response of the Corps since you’ve brought up this economic argument?
RR: The Corps is ready to sit down and talk because they do not want to get themselves in a position where they get sued for more than the project was worth to begin with.

And the local government officials who also fund this are stepping back and saying we need to look at this more closely. And that’s just related directly to surfing — that’s not even related to all the trickle down business that goes to the restaurants and hotels and everything else.

CD: What are you asking for right now?
RR: We would like to sit down with the Army Corps and talk about the jetty that they’re putting in. We’re not necessarily wanting to stop it, but we want to be figured in to what they’re going to do to one of our main recreational areas. We also want to have some input from the coastal engineers from Surfrider — so they can sit down and say ‘hey guys, is this the only way you can do this?’

CD: What are the ways that surfers in your area should find out more about this?
RR: They should go to our website, sign the petition and email the funding officials and the Army Corps on it. Voice their concerns.

We’re not having any more meetings until after the Trade Show after New Years. In Mid-January, we’re hopefully going to be sitting down to form our own Central Florida Surfrider Chapter. We’re going to consolidate the coastal cities and inlet chapters to see if we can’t get enough people together.

CD: If you had a personal appeal to the surfers in your area as far as getting their voice heard, what would you say?
RR: I’d say join Surfrider. We have to work to maintain what we have. We can actually have an influence on the way things go. It doesn’t have to just be the 50-year-old guy who is an attorney. It can be the sixteen-year-old kid who signs a petition, helps with a beach cleanup or writes a politician. Roll your sleeves up and join in.

Click Below to visit the Save Smyrna Inlet Website:

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