August 11, 2013

Camp Ellis fix moving forward on a wave of uncertainty

The Army Corps of Engineers wants to fix Saco River’s jetty in a bid to stop erosion. But if it works, how long will it last?

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

SACO - When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and built the first portion of a jetty at the mouth of the Saco River more than a century ago, the idea was to open the waterway to more commercial shipping and ease navigation in one of the longest rivers in New England.

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With a storm front moving in overhead, two anglers fish from the jetty at Camp Ellis. The 6,600-foot jetty, with the ocean on the left side and the mouth of the Saco River on the right, is a popular location for striper fishing. Over many decades, it also has been the primary cause of severe erosion requiring a costly fix.

2007 Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Gregory Rec

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Erosion at Camp Ellis

Examine how the beach at Camp Ellis has eroded since 1908 and may erode between now and 2061 with our interactive time lapse map.

The jetty, begun in the early 19th century but not substantially in place until 1911, was designed to steer sand and sediment from the mouth of the river farther out into Saco Bay. Widening and deepening the river and stabilizing its confluence with the sea, engineers thought, would enable ships to travel upstream to what in 1825 was the largest textile mill in the nation, promoting commerce for the cities of Saco and Biddeford.

All this made the jetty seem like a good idea at the time, said Patrick Fox, director of Saco's Public Works Department. But the jetty no longer seems to be the solution it once represented; in fact, it has become a very expensive and controversial problem.

The jetty has altered the dynamics of wave action, currents and sand drift, subjecting Camp Ellis to punishing forces during storms and extremely high tides. The beach has eroded over time, and streets and houses have washed into the sea, causing millions of dollars in damage to public and private property.

Climate change, and its impact on rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions, threatens to exacerbate the Camp Ellis situation.

The complex ocean forces -- along with the inadvertent impact of the jetty -- have confounded every attempt to make lasting improvements to the river, its mouth and nearby coastal communities.

Now the Army Corps of Engineers is poised to embark on a $27 million plan to address the problems, which the corps itself acknowledges were caused, in part, by the jetty it built a century ago.

"The intent was 100 percent navigation of the river," said Richard Heidebrecht, the corp's project manager in New England. "But inlets move, and this particular one has moved north and south. ... The Camp Ellis beach shoreline has shown continued erosion since the early 1900s. We have a problem that we have some responsibility to correct."

The plan, selected after nearly 15 years of study and more than 35 proposals, is to install a 750-foot spur onto the northern arm of the jetty, about 1,500 feet out and roughly parallel to shore. The project would also reinforce about 400 feet of the existing jetty and replace 400,000 cubic yards of sand to the beach directly to the north. It is, said Heidebrecht, the best shot Camp Ellis and the surrounding section of the southern Maine shoreline have of staying intact -- more or less.

But even when the spur is in place, massive amounts of sand will have to be replenished at the Camp Ellis shoreline -- not just once but every three to 10 years.

"It's an enormous amount of sand, the equivalent of a dump truck load delivered every six minutes for 90 days during the off-season," said Patrick Fox, director of the Saco Department of Public Works. That much sand carries a hefty price tag, as much as $3 million from the city's budget each time the replenishment is done, according to the Maine Geological Survey and other coastal experts.

Just how long any round of beach-sand replacement will last, no one can say. "It's the most permanent solution available to us now," Fox said. "It won't be permanent in (the sense) that it'll be fixed forever. It will always require maintenance; it will always require funding."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Dean Coniaris of Camp Ellis has a view of the jetty and Saco Bay from his porch on Eastern Avenue. He remembers the 1978 winter nor’easter that brought down as many as 18 houses along the shore.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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