More than a decade after the project was first proposed, state contractors have begun a major restoration of Winthrop Beach.
The estimated $17 million project, which started in late September, includes replenishing the badly eroded shoreline by adding 450,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel.
Though Hurricane Sandy caused only minor damage to the beach, Town Manager James McKenna said the recent storm “really speaks to why [the project] is important.’’
“The beach is a very important public safety issue for us, because we need it to protect us from the very things we were concerned about in the last storm: the volume of water that comes at the town,’’ he said. “The beach is going to add an extra layer of protection for so many homes.’’
McKenna said the project, which follows the recent completion of state improvements to Short Beach on the Revere line, also gives Winthrop the potential to be “a recreational resource for the entire region.’’
Governor Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, and Edward M. Lambert, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, were among those celebrating the start of the project at an Oct. 18 groundbreaking. DCR manages the beach and is carrying out the project.
“It’s something I’ve been trying to get done for about 20 years,’’ DeLeo said in a telephone interview.
“This isn’t just a question of making the beach more beautiful, more pristine,’’ he said. “It’s also a question of making this beach safer in helping out folks in the area in terms of flooding and other acts of nature that have raised destruction.’’
The project is the last of a series by DCR to improve Boston-area public beaches identified as in need of restoration in a “Back to the Beaches’’ report issued in 1996 by a special commission.
“The impetus for this project is critical shore protection,’’ said Joe Orfant, the chief of the DCR’s Bureau of Planning and Resource Protection. He noted that Winthrop Beach directly faces the ocean, meaning the shoreline and adjacent neighborhood are at particular risk for storm damage.
The project encountered years of delays when the state waged an ultimately unsuccessful bid for federal approval to secure the needed sand by dredging the ocean bottom 8 miles off shore.
The DCR then successfully sought permits to use sand and gravel from an abandoned highway embankment in Rumney Marsh in Saugus. But during that time, the funds originally set aside for the project were no longer available.
DeLeo, who was surprised when he learned of the funding problem last spring, said he made a direct appeal to the governor to find a way to fund the project.
At about the same time, at the behest of DeLeo and town officials, DCR came up with a revised plan that reduced the amount of sand and gravel it needed to truck to the site from Rumney Marsh.
Under the revised plan, 90,000 cubic yards will be dredged from an area behind the Five Sisters, a series of five breakwaters off Winthrop Beach. The remaining 360,000 cubic yards will come from Rumney Marsh.
In addition, a 30 percent reduction in local truck traffic than originally planned is expected, though trucks will still run every three minutes from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays for eight to 10 months, starting next spring.
“It’s our version of the Big Dig,’’ McKenna said. “We have to live with a significant but short-term impact to gain the greater good of this project.’’
In a first phase of the project, contractors have completed repairs to two of the beach’s five “groins’’ — protective structures resembling jetties — that date to the 1950s.
Orfant said the repairs to the two groins — both on the southern end of the beach — already have had a beneficial effect, noting they helped lessen damage to the shoreline from Hurricane Sandy.
Contractors will soon begin the dredging, which will produce the sand needed to replenish the southern end of the beach for the project’s second phase.
The DCR secured approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection to take the sand from a tombolo, or a pile of accumulated sediment, that is behind the breakwaters.
The sand and gravel trucked from Rumney Marsh will be used to replenish the north side of the beach in the third phase of the project, which will also include repairs to three groins and construction of an additional groin on the north side of the beach.
The project’s final phase calls for widening sidewalks on Winthrop Shore Drive, and the addition of new lighting, benches, sand-rinsing stations, and upgraded beach entrances.
The overall project is targeted for completion by late 2014 or early 2015.