SACO – Residents of Saco’s Camp Ellis haven’t stopped hoping for a solution to decades of beach erosion from the jetty at the mouth of the Saco River.
For Colin Wormwood, co-owner with his wife, Cindy, of Wormwood’s Restaurant on Bay Avenue, watching the world around them disappear, bit by bit, year by year, has gone on for a lifetime.
Wormwood was born and raised in Saco. He remembers when the beach stretched 400 feet out. Now, in places in Camp Ellis, at high tide, it extends just four feet.
“We’ve watched everything erode away,” Cindy Wormwood said. “It’s just diminished everything. It’s sad.”
In addition to roughly 50 pieces of property already lost to the sea, 60 more are in danger of being lost, she said.
“We feel enough is enough,” she said. “This has got to stop.”
And now, if a $20 million to $25 million strategy by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is approved, the restoration of the beach and the engineering correction to the jetty could finally happen.
Representatives from the Army Corps, state and city officials and constituents from the affected communities of Saco and Biddeford, have agreed on a plan that might save Camp Ellis.
After more than 20 years of study and 35 design proposals, the Army Corps has put forward a plan to construct a 750-foot-long stone spur to fix the erosion problem created more than a century ago by other manmade manipulations to the natural shoreline.
The spur would be attached to the north section of the jetty about 1,500 feet from shore, according to the Army Corps’ published plan. Running roughly parallel to the beach, the top of the spur would be about 15 feet wide and high and would break the funnel effect of wave action around offshore islands and reflected off the jetty.
Additionally, about 365,000 cubic yards of sand would be used to replenish and widen Camp Ellis beach.
Public comment on the plan will be taken through Tuesday.
If approved, the project would be paid for entirely with federal dollars, although the city of Saco would have to cover 50 percent of the cost of any future beach renourishment. The Army Corps estimates that the beach sand would need to be replenished every 11 years or so.
The proposal by the Army Corps is subject to an environmental impact study that could determine how the project proceeds.
The Camp Ellis jetty — actually, a pair of jetties — was constructed in sections between 1828 and 1968, said Peter Morelli, development director for the city of Saco.
Substantially in place by 1911, it — along with the dredging of the river — was designed to ease commercial shipping to mills and later the navigation of fishing boats.
It also was intended to serve as a buffer to protect the beach from heavy storms — particularly in winter. But it has had the reverse effect, actually making matters worse.
In the past year alone, the Camp Ellis community has lost a swath of beach as wide as 25 feet in spots, residents say. The jetty has not only failed to prevent the sea from demolishing dwellings, washing away streets and stealing the precious sandy beach, it has amplified the destructive force of nature.
Despite numerous efforts to curb the impact of wave action and sculpting winds — especially pronounced during high tides and storms — more of the dune ridge close to the water has been lost each year. The jetty continues to reflect the waves back onto the beach and carve away more sand, Morelli said.
“The ocean is very ferocious, and you have to respect it,” Cindy Wormwood said. “But we’re just at the mercy … of this situation.”
“There is simply no more land to give without more homes toppling into the sea or people having to leave or move their homes,” said Saco resident Charlie Reade. “The negative effects of the jetty are now being felt north along the Saco shoreline (on) properties up to and beyond Ferry Beach State Park.”
Even Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough are seeing evidence of the movement of sand from south to north, said Rick Milliard, an engineer who serves on the regional Saco Bay Implementation Commission. The group is trying to bring together all the necessary elements — science, engineering, civic involvement, politics and money — for a solution.
“It is a very difficult engineering problem,” he said. Any corrective measure will have to address the especially powerful energy of storms from February through April, tidal variations of nearly 10 feet and waves that hit the shore at a 45-degree angle, effectively scrubbing the sand back and forth, he said.
“The increase in energy agitates the sand,” he said, likening the movement to a conveyor belt, continually transporting sand from south to north.
Ironically, much of it ends up exactly at the point from which it once was removed: at the mouth of the Saco River, Reade said.
In the early 20th century, the river was dredged for commercial boat traffic, its sand removed and depth increased. But it was primarily that river sand that had naturally replenished Saco Bay’s beaches, and when it was stripped away, the erosion intensified.
The jetty — one arm on the northeast side of the river near Camp Ellis and the other to the south, toward Biddeford — was meant to control or, at least, change that.
Over the past four decades, the Camp Ellis community — a mix of summer residents, lobstermen and their families, and a handful of restaurants and stores — has lost buildings, homes, roads and public and private infrastructure, according to the Army Corps.
“As waves hit (the jetty), they become superwaves and slam into shore, eroding the beach,” said Reade, who has been working to publicize the Army Corps’ new engineering plan. Pounding waves of 50-60 miles per hour are not uncommon in bad storms, he said.
“We have to rectify this,” Reade said. “We in Saco Bay are at a very critical juncture with regards to the Army Corps’ repair to the jetty and beach replenishment.”
The Army Corps has made it clear that “it is now or never” for the project, he said, adding that public input is critical.
Morelli said considerable public comment already has been sent to the mayor and other city officials. “I haven’t seen anything but support from the (Camp Ellis) beach,” he said.
The sticking point for Saco might come with the realization that, even with the jetty spur construction, huge amounts of sand periodically will be needed to refresh the beaches, and some of that cost might end up at the city’s door.
The alternative is to wait for the next storm and see what develops.
Late last week, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration warned of another summer of extreme weather events, including devastating nor’easters and potentially deadly hurricanes.
The agency’s forecast for the hurricane season, starting June 1, predicts a 70 percent likelihood for 13-20 named storms this season, seven to 11 hurricanes (winds exceeding 74 mph) and three to six of those hurricanes reaching “major” status. Those forecasts all are above the average for an Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November.
Last summer, flooding rains in June were the staggering climate event. They washed out roads in southern and central Maine and caused millions of dollars in damage.
“This is a serious and urgent issue,” Reade said. “All of us who enjoy this amazing stretch of rare beach sand on our rocky coast need to stand up and take action.”
Comments to the Army Corps can be emailed to Richard Heidebrecht, project manager with the New England Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
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