2018-03-15 / News

After storms, Saco officials frustrated

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer


Houses in Camp Ellis are left vulnerable as high tides from the storms continue to crash over the seawall and erode away the beach in this March 9 photo. (Abigail Worthing photo) Houses in Camp Ellis are left vulnerable as high tides from the storms continue to crash over the seawall and erode away the beach in this March 9 photo. (Abigail Worthing photo) SACO – Recent storms on Maine’s coast have caused unprecedented high tides in Saco Bay, leaving residents and officials wondering if the federal government has forgotten about Camp Ellis.

Saco has now lost dunes, a railroad, four streets and 38 homes to the erosion at Camp Ellis and while it has tried to armor itself by adding more sand and placing Geo Tubes – large tubes that are filled with a sand water mixture to fortify the beach in front of vulnerable homes – one only needs to walk along the beach to see the devastation caused by current high tides.

While out for a walk on Friday, March 8 with his dog, Saco resident and gubernatorial candidate Ethan Alcorn looked out at the houses where the waves had torn away the foundations and said, “They need to take down the jetty or do something to fix it, or it will keep getting worse. The government needs to address the problem or watch people’s investments go down the drain.”


Damaged houses line the beach behind exposed Geo Tubes. The Geo Tubes were installed in Camp Ellis to fortify the beach, but are proving to be no match for the unprecedented tides pounding Saco Bay. (Abigail Worthing photo) Damaged houses line the beach behind exposed Geo Tubes. The Geo Tubes were installed in Camp Ellis to fortify the beach, but are proving to be no match for the unprecedented tides pounding Saco Bay. (Abigail Worthing photo) According to Marston Lovell, mayor of Saco, the city is “caught between a hammer and an anvil. The anvil is the federal government. The hammer is Mother Nature.”

In 2006 Senators Tom Allen and Susan Collins fought to get a bill through the House and Senate that would offer $26 million that would have repaired and prevented further damage to Camp Ellis.

“The Army Corps has the authorization, but not the appropriation of funds to do the work,” Lovell said. “The actual work can’t be done until then.”

 "Senator Collins has strongly supported a long-term solution to Camp Ellis that addresses the ongoing beach erosion and brings together state and local officials, concerned citizens, and the Army Corps to find a commonsense compromise," said Annie Clark, Senator Collins’ communications director.

The appropriation of funds can only be done at a federal level, so the city waits for the government to give permission to move forward with a solution.

Former Saco mayor Don Pilon brought his concerns about Camp Ellis to a city council meeting March 5, questioning the council about what is being done to aid the people of coastal Saco.

In a separate interview, Pilon offered a detailed explanation of the erosion in Camp Ellis, and went so far as to draw a diagram of the wave erosion.

“Camp Ellis is suffering from lack of attention. The council is not making this a priority and people are suffering,” Pilon said. “If I were the mayor, I would take pictures and go down to Washington, D.C., myself. I’d make appointments with Susan Collins, Chellie Pingree and Angus King and show them what’s happening here.”

Art Cleaves, director of the York County branch of Maine Emergency Management Agency, said there are record high tides hitting Saco Bay because of winter storms. On March 8, MEMA did a drone fly over of the Saco Bay to observe and document damage done by recent storms. Cleaves has been out to Camp Ellis to assess damage and said that once winter storms are over, there will be a team out to do damage assessment.

“Once the tide has comprised the coast, each subsequent high tide brings about more damage,” said Cleaves, adding, “Right now it’s in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers.”

The United States Army Corps did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

In the mid 19th century, the Saco River became a federal navigable waterway, which led to involvement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the mouth of the river was being kept open as efficiently as possible. While the Corps had begun to make significant improvements to the estuary in 1866, obstructions had already begun to form and be removed in the mouth of the Saco River. In an effort to prevent silt build up at the mouth of the river, a 1.8 km deep channel was dredged and a jetty was constructed at the mouth of the river. The first portion of the jetty was completed in 1873, at a length of 1280 meters long. The silt build up continued and in 1924 a lower, south jetty was added. As a result of chronic shoaling, the jetty was extended twice in the early 1930s, once in 1930, and again in 1938.

The jetties cause a change in the wave patterns at Camp Ellis in a way that has caused sand erosion since their construction. Wave and tide patterns normally flow in and out along the coast, causing the sand to ebb and flow back to the beach. The jetty, however, causes the waves to gather speed along the side of the jetty and then crash along the beach as opposed to against the beach, causing the sand to be pushed north.

The erosion became an issue in the early 20th century, and after the loss of streets and houses, the city of Saco erected a 213-meter seawall in 1953, in front of Surf Street. 1955, after the seawall had toppled, the city requested a federal study to be done to investigate the role of the northern jetty in this erosion. The report found that there was no federal interest to provide action.

The city of Saco again requested federal assistance, and the corps found that the city had lost 20 properties and 12 lots to the erosion. The study concluded that either a seawall, offshore breakwater, or beach replenishment would help the erosion problem, but the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to warrant federal aid.

After the largest storm ever recorded struck Maine’s coast in 1978, new beach regulations were implemented to prevent seawall construction. This prevented the city of Saco from further protecting the shoreline.

In the early 1990s “Save our Shores-Camp Ellis,” a property rights group, was formed and compelled the U.S. Army into conducting another study in the north jetty. Again the study found that a seawall or beach replenishment would be the best solution, and again nothing was done by corps.

At the conclusion of the March 5 meeting, Councilor Lynn Copeland of Ward 4, took a moment to address the people of Saco, encouraging them to write letters to Augusta and to make themselves heard, adding that the more attention brought to the issue will hopefully help move along the progress in allocating funds to Camp Ellis.

Lovell and Pilon have since both shared sentiments of feeling forgotten by Maine’s elected officials in Washington.

“We need them to be willing to use their political clout. We need them to be focused on the problems that Maine has. Saco is a huge problem,” Lovell said.

Contact staff writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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