Thursday October 10, 2013 | 08:30 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Third part of my series on a visit to Drake’s Island Beach in Wells a couple weeks back.

As I mentioned, this beach is a study in contrasts. Its southern tip, near the mouth of the Webhannet River, is backed by a deep healthy dune system.

 

Dunegrass like this helps hold & lock sand in place. The high, porous ground buffers & filters any storm waves that come in. Waves that crash into a sand dune percolate downward into the ground, their energy breaking up and spreading out.

Contrast this dune with the landscape 100 yards north -- a concrete seawall ringing the rest of the beach, protecting oceanfront property all up the line of the beach.


(Photo linked from source, copyright Timothy J. Park)

A storm wave that hits a seawall doesn’t dissipate. It reflects back toward the ocean. Its unbroken energy drags sand and gravel far back out to sea, eroding the beach wave after wave. A seawall is a death knell to a natural beach.

If that sounds like hyperbole, see this photo of what Drake’s Island Beach looked like in front of the seawall by 1989.


(From Kelley, J.T., Kelley, A.R., & Pilkey, O.H. Sr., 1989, Living with the Coast of Maine, Durham: Duke University Press)

The world over, cities are armoring their coastlines with seawalls like this.

The thing is, a seawall doesn’t protect a beach. It only protects what’s behind the beach. Oceanfront homes and their high tax bases are preserved. As is any infrastructure foolishly built on shifting ground. All at the cost of the beach itself.

But today Drake’s Island Beach stretches off in the distance, glistening soft sand underfoot. Right? Right, because of sand “renourishment.” Sand dredged from out in the ocean or in a harbor is brought back up onto the beach, then cleared of boulders and smoothed for the next tourist season. At a staggering and growing cost.

Here is a photo of a renourishment project at Drake’s Island Beach from 2000:


(Source)

Less than three years later, in early 2003, Wells had to pay to truck in another 6,000 cubic yards of sand to replace what was lost. 18 months after that, more was needed.

And on and on.

Sometimes boulders & cobblesbuild up after renourishment, meaning more expense to clear them.


Drake’s Island cobble cleanup
Photo linked from source

A beach backed by a seawall is a theme park -- a manicured, artificial space that only vaguely represents the natural environment it once was.

As sea level continues to rise, the cost to maintain sandy beaches in front of seawalls will continue to rise. Not to mention the cost of repairing the seawalls themselves. After February 2010’s violent storms a large section of Drake’s Island’s seawall collapsed. Who paid to fix it?

Seacoast Online reports just today that Wells Harbor is being dredged again, and sand dumped again on Drake’s Island. To the tune of $2.7 million this time.

That cost is only going to keep going up.

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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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