Friday May 24, 2013 | 10:33 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Last week, residents of Camp Ellis in Saco learned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to save their community. The ocean has been carving away at Camp Ellis for a century. Between 1968 and 2000, 33 homes were lost. The April 2007 storm damaged or destroyed several more.

(Source for this and many other images of the storm's aftermath)

The remaining community has been threatened many times since (Note: video auto-plays).


A story of good intentions gone wrong.

In the mid-1800s the Saco River was a major shipping lane, with barges running up and down to ports in Biddeford and Saco.


Shifting sandbars at the mouth of the river threatened to disrupt this traffic.

Enter the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1869 they built the first jetty at the mouth of the Saco. With it, they hoped to guide the force of the river further out to sea. This would drag out the sand with it, keeping it from accumulating & blocking transit.

(The jetties today, credit: Google Earth)

That part of the plan worked. But the Corps badly misunderstood the seafloor currents. Because surface currents travel north-to-south, the Corps assumed that seafloor currents did the same thing. They believed Camp Ellis’s beach sand came from points north, or was reworked material from just offshore.

They were wrong. It turns out, Camp Ellis sand came from the Saco River. By siphoning off all that river sediment to the deep Bay, the Corps had starved the local shoreline.

Within a generation, Camp Ellis was losing its beach.

In addition, the reflection of strong waves off the jetty added to the scouring of whatever sand remained. Now there is no beach at Camp Ellis anymore. Just riprap seawalls, and perhaps a little exposed sand at very low tide.

Worse, all that Saco River sediment was now landing elsewhere -- at the northern tip of Saco Bay, Pine Point in Scarborough. Formerly-oceanfront homes there are now well back of the ocean, and the small harbor at Pine Point Spit is under continual threat of silting up. Which means continual expense to keep it dredged and functional. At millions of dollars a pop.

There is one fundamental truth in ecology: You cannot do just one thing.

The coast works as a finely tuned & integrated system. When you go monkeying with part of it, you will cause knock-on effects.

After a century denying it, in 1995 the Corps finally admitted its mistake. Nearly 20 years later, it’s finally approaching a solution. Large-scale shipping on the Saco River is no longer a thing. So the sensible answer to save Camp Ellis & stabilize Pine Point seems to be removing, or at least shrinking, the jetty, right?


Instead, the Corps of Engineers wants to create a new breakwater off the jetty to dampen waves. And then it wants to dump sand on Camp Ellis periodically over the next 50 years -- at the cost to the City of Saco.

How much do you want to bet they get it right this time? As a taxpayer, this isn’t a rhetorical question.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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December 2013

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