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 ncairn@pressherald.com
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.

But at Camp Ellis, additional stresses arise from different types of wave energy, too. Sand is not just moved north; the beach is virtually excavated as storms -- often out of the north -- drive waves along the jetty in a drilling effect.

In addition, small islands and shoals off Camp Ellis focus waves right on the beach next to the jetty. Situated as the shoreline and jetty are, there is a funneling effect of the storm waves, building power in the moving water that erodes the beach and dunes. This back-and-forth action at the southern end of Saco Bay leads to a net movement of sand to the north.

Some waves generate friction as they race along the jetty, while others are reflected, rebounding when they hit the jetty, bouncing back off and then toward shore. The end result is that the beach, already under assault, is raked twice, Slovinsky said.

On a good day, these forces conspire to gnaw away at the sand, hauling it back into the water and sending it swirling north. But during nor'easters -- particularly winter storms -- the wave energy is greatly intensified, whipping it into an explosive force, geologists said.

That effect became especially pronounced during a 1978 storm that followed earlier jetty modifications. As many as 18 houses came down in that one storm, said Dean Coniaris, an optician and lobsterman whose home overlooks the beach. Within a decade the destruction on the beach mirrored the changes to the jetty and the flattening of the stone, he said.

But the common denominator of all these destructive pressures -- and their solutions -- is the jetty. "They created the perfect structure to cause beach erosion to Camp Ellis," Slovinsky said.

SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE

The coastal community has been disappearing at the rate of several feet of beach per year, two or three cottages annually, several streets over the last half-century -- victims of the one constant in this ever-changing scene: erosion. Between 30 and 50 cottages, homes and other buildings and millions of dollars of infrastructure have been destroyed by erosion since the 1960s. Geologists, engineers and marine experts have conducted a host of studies that project the damage will continue unless dramatic changes are made to the sandscape and what lies nearby.

"There is simply no more land to give without more homes toppling into the sea or people having to leave or move their homes," Saco resident Charlie Reade has warned.

If the full project funding gets the green light, federal money will cover the initial costs -- the spur and the first round of sand replenishment. But the city of Saco is on the hook for the ongoing sand maintenance job, estimated at between 365,000 and 400,000 cubic yards at a time, as needed. It remains to be seen whether city residents will accept that continuing cost, not to mention the heavy truck traffic during the time of the year many cherish for its quiet.

"We may find there is opposition to that," said Fox, the city's public works director.

The project's estimated cost remains a source of concern and controversy, in part because no one -- including the corps -- believes the jetty spur and beach restoration can stop the sea or halt the erosion completely. The best-case scenario, all experts have said, is that erosion will be slowed.

But something has to be done, residents and city officials agree.

Right now, the significant sand loss at Camp Ellis occurs mainly along 2,000 feet of its coastline each year. The Saco Public Works Department performs sand dune and roadway replacement from erosion 10 to 15 times a year, already allocating more than 750 man-hours a year to the work.

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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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