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Environment and Outdoors

New Efforts Underway To Modify 150-Year-Old Jetty In Saco Bay Blamed For Eroding Camp Ellis Waterfront

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David Plavin
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A wave overtopping a home in Camp Ellis in March 2018.

New efforts are underway to modify a 150-year-old jetty in Saco Bay that's blamed for eroding the Camp Ellis waterfront, and destroying almost 40 homes. But there are unresolved questions about who should bear the cost.

Ironically, Camp Ellis exists in part thanks to two jetties -- one of them more than a mile-long -- that the Army Corps of Engineers established on either side of the Saco River back in the 1870s. For several decades after, it appears the structures encouraged sand accretion along the coast just north of the river's mouth.

"And people jumped on it and built the community of Camp Ellis, And it was relatively new land... Today you would not do that. An engineer would tell you, 'this is just crazy, wait a while first.' But they didn't," says Joseph Kelley, a professor emeritus at the University of Maine's earth sciences department. He says that by 1910, though, there was little new sand flowing out of the river. And the jetty, in tandem with two nearby islands that sluice water towards it, amplified the destructive energy of ocean waves.

Over many decades the system directed storm surges into the coast, scouring the beachfront and putting acres of land, dozens of homes - even a railroad -- under water. And for a long time, Kelley says, the Corps insisted the jetty wasn't the problem.

"And eventually they came around to allow (that) yeah maybe the structure was causing some erosion. But the people there were getting nothing. The Army has a way of just absorbing criticism and just moving on," Kelley says.

"And the city of Saco has been bearing the costs, hundreds of thousands a year. For so long it's ridiculous. We've lost 38 houses!" says Camp Ellis Representative Lynn Copeland. She says the community got a glimpse of a more stable future in 2019, when the Corps used sand from a river dredging project to build up the local beachfront.

"We saw how good it could be. And we want that, we want the beach out here because what happens is... the tourists come. It supports our economy locally, it supports the state of Maine hugely, in the millions of dollars," Copeland says.

The sea quickly washed that dredged sand away, but Copeland sees a longer-lasting solution on the horizon: a 750-foot spur angling north, off the end of the jetty, to break up those energized waves before they reach the shore.

She says that after years of fits, starts and disputes, the Corps and the city are moving toward a new "Project Partnership Agreement" for the $27 million dollar spur.

"It just boggles the mind that this continues to happen to our community. It's stopping here, it's stopping now," Copeland says.

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Fred Bever
David Plavin and Rep. Lynn Copeland, both Camp Ellis residents, near a metal seawall and plastic “geotube” installed in recent years to try to build up beach and hold back the ocean. Both proved only marginally effective.

Copeland says a supportive letter the city council wrote to the Corps in April demonstrates growing focus on the issue even in Saco's inland precincts. That letter asserted that the city understood the Corps would not take on costs beyond the initial $27 million federal investment.

A legislative resolution that Copeland sponsored calls on state government to assist the effort - although language that would have made the state the project's "non-federal sponsor" was dropped.

Several officials say getting federal, state and local governments to agree on ultimate responsibility for cost overruns, ongoing beach replenishment, and future liability will be as challenging as designing a successful system.

And some in Camp Ellis are calling for consideration of fixes they say could be less-costly and more effective.

"We'd like to see a more modern solution than the one the corps has proposed," says David Plavin, who moved to Surf Road five years ago, and each winter his home has taken a beating from the ocean, which even on a calm day reaches high tide just below a jumbled boulder seawall a few yards away.

He's active with a group called Save Our Shores Saco Bay, which is looking at options such as wave-attenuator systems -- 11-ton concrete baffles that have shown success when installed near shore in other regions.

"To slow down breakwater and replenish beaches as opposed to what the corps really wants to do, which is actually just put another stone structure out there, which is like trying to remediate a problem with another like the one that cause the problem... But we'd take anything at this point," Plavin says.

And that's a widely-held sentiment in this surfside community. In an email to Maine Public, a Corps official says the agency recently received funding needed to complete an update of the jetty plan, which should be done by December. Actual installation could begin within three years of that. A spokeswoman for the Mills administration says it will work to keep stakeholders engaged, and is quote, "particularly committed to ensuring that the federal government meets its responsibility to mitigate both current and future erosion."