February 28, 2010

Surf, tides may shape future of beloved beach

If Mother Nature doesn't stop the erosion of Popham Beach who will? Maybe no one

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PHIPPSBURG – For months, Dick Hill has been nervously watching the erosion at Popham Beach State Park.

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Storms have accelerated erosion and pushed the high tide mark at Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg to within 75 feet of a new bathhouse, behind trees at left. Trees that have been lost to beach erosion are tied to the shoreline in an effort to minimize further damage.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Paul Getchell takes a walk along Popham Beach, now littered with downed trees.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Since November, the shifting Morse River has eaten away the sand dunes to within 25 yards of the park's bathhouse and septic system, toppling hundreds of trees and further threatening a beach that, for the past few years, has disappeared at each high tide.

Last week, Hill organized a meeting to rally support for a dredge-and-fill operation to put the Morse River back on its original course -- a move opposed by abutting landowners.

But this weekend, an unusual trifecta of ocean surf and tides could solve the decades-old erosion of Popham Beach.

''Mother Nature is going to do the heavy lifting for free,'' state marine geologist Stephen Dickson gleefully predicted last week.

Dickson said the storm system Thursday and Friday created a tidal

surge and pounding surf from 10- to 15-foot waves offshore, followed by astronomical high tides Saturday and today. That may be enough to recut the original channel, which Dickson said would result in a visibly enlarged beachfront with room for sunbathers even at high tide as early as this summer.

''You might see this once in a lifetime,'' said Dickson, who has spent his professional career studying the sands at the mouth of the Kennebec River.

The sands at Popham Beach have been shifting since the glaciers departed 20,000 years ago, leaving behind mountains of sand that washed down the Kennebec River to form a beach system unique to the Maine coast. Today, sands extend out several miles along an area stretching from Small Point Beach at the tip of Phippsburg Peninsula to Reid Sate Park at the tip of the Georgetown peninsula on the mouth of Sheepscot River.

The sand bars attract birds. Sand dollars cover the sandy underwater delta. The area is a magnet for winter flounder, which prefer sandy ocean bottoms.

The Morse River, which lies on the western end of three-mile-long Popham Beach, carries the tides from the ocean into the marshes behind the beach. The river channel naturally changes course every 15 years or so, moving eastward and back, from a straight path to the ocean to an angled approach.

''Like a tail on a dog wags back and forth,'' said Dickson.

But for the past decade, the tail has continued to wag toward the state park, causing the beach to erode more than at any time in the past century.

A series of easterly storms in the past couple of years has accelerated the erosion. That has pushed the high tide mark inland by about 180 feet -- to within 75 feet of one of two new bathhouses that opened last summer, part of a $1.4 million improvement project.

Hundreds of trees fell into the river. With about 10 feet of shoreline vanishing each week, park officials obtained a special permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in November for a project to stem the erosion.

The permit allowed the state to rig a temporary sea wall by bundling the fallen trees and securing them with ropes to others on high ground. The temporary wall has worked.

''We have lost inches rather than hundreds of feet since we did that in early November,'' said John Picher, director of engineering and realty at the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

At the same time, bureau officials met owners of property abutting the Morse River. They hoped to get permission to cut a channel through the sand bars now blocking the river's direct outlet to the ocean, and to block off the new channel that has been carved out.

(Continued on page 2)

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