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

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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 city is waiting now for a draft partnership agreement with the corps, outlining exactly what costs it would have to bear for beach replenishment beyond the initial project. That agreement must be completed before the project can move ahead.

"We've never gotten this far," said Rick Milliard of Saco, vice chairman of the Saco Bay Implementation Committee. Both Milliard and his father have been working for 15 years to get the Camp Ellis situation resolved. "It's progressing, but slowly," Millard said.

Richard Michaud, Saco's city administrator, said Saco and Biddeford are considering whether to jointly purchase a dredge, at an estimated cost of about $600,000, to periodically dredge the mouth of the Saco River and use the sand to replenish Camp Ellis and another beach in Biddeford.

Michaud said Gov. Paul LePage is expected to visit Camp Ellis later this month. The city may ask the state to help fund the beach replenishment program.

Michaud said city officials likely won't take up a proposed agreement with the Corps of Engineers before November.

Meanwhile, in the past year alone, parts of Camp Ellis have lost a swath of beach as wide as 25 feet in spots, residents have said.

Huot's Seafood Restaurant in Camp Ellis is one of two eateries that attract tourists to the area. It has felt the effect of erosion this year for the first time, said Denise Gelinas, who runs the family-owned establishment with her husband, Gerry. In the past, the encroaching water was a slightly more distant problem, but this year, rising water and receding beach meant Huot's faced flooding twice, with soaked carpeting that had to be cleaned and dried.

"It's really hitting home," said Gelinas, whose family has owned Huot's since 1935.

"There are some people who are right on the edge," she said. "For me, it's our livelihood; we have 60 employees. With the waves and the sea -- I just don't trust it. And it's only going to get worse."


Like most residents and business owners in Camp Ellis -- which provides about 30 percent of the city's tax base -- Gelinas supports the jetty spur plan and wants to see it done as soon as possible.

"What are we going to be in three years?" Gelinas asked. "Are we going to be waterfront?"

That might depend on how a lot of complicated factors play out.

"There are a lot of things happening there," said Robert Marvinney, state geologist and director of the Maine Geological Survey. "The mouth of a major river and a bay is always a dynamic environment."

The sand movement is controlled by opposing wave and river forces, said marine geologist Peter Slovinsky of the Maine Geological Survey. The dominant sediment movement in Saco Bay is south to north. Most of the sand that originally built and sustained the beach at Camp Ellis came down the Saco River. The jetty now drives that sand supply far out to sea and very little makes its way back to naturally rebuild the Camp Ellis beach. Without this supply, the incessant south-to-north movement of sand robs the Camp Ellis beach and adds it to beaches to the north.

It bypasses the shoreline at Camp Ellis and nearby Ferry Beach and is washed farther north, sometimes emptying on Old Orchard Beach. Over time, it is pressed onward to even more distant beaches, including Prouts Neck in Scarborough.

And when dominant near-shore currents are coupled with opposing prevailing currents farther out, a continual swirl of sand back and forth occurs along this long stretch of open dune beach.

The effect is a constant here-today-gone-tomorrow sculpting and shaping of the sandy beach that extends for miles toward Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough.

(Continued on page 3)

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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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