2018-04-26 / Front Page

What about Hills Beach?

Coast is eroding, but not bad enough
Abigail Worthing Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Record high tides continue to pummel the coast of Maine, and on Hills Beach in Biddeford, the waves are causing property damage with every storm. A storm at the end of March forced water up and over the seawalls at Hills Beach, causing damage to yards and streets. During a visit to the area on April 13, rocks, sand and seaweed could be found on the opposite side of the street that runs parallel to the coast.

Video footage of the storm provided by Hills Beach resident Raymond Cronkite shows waves crashing up over the seawall and driving rocks from the beach onto his front lawn. A testament to the raw power of the waves during the storm can be seen in the form of a concrete bench on his front lawn that was toppled over by waves, a feat that would usually take two grown men, according to Cronkite.

Cronkite, 72, summered at Hills Beach his whole life and has been a resident since 1976. He has seen the effects of the southern of the two jetties – one in Biddeford and another in Saco – that bracket the mouth of the Saco River.

Debris can be seen on Raymond Cronkite’s front yard on Hills Beach Road. A storm in late March caused violent wave action, pushing rocks up and over the fortifying seawall. (Abigail Worthing photo) Debris can be seen on Raymond Cronkite’s front yard on Hills Beach Road. A storm in late March caused violent wave action, pushing rocks up and over the fortifying seawall. (Abigail Worthing photo) In a photograph taken in 1969 following a sand replenishment, Cronkite’s father can be seen standing on the beach. Comparing that photograph to another taken from the same vantage point two years later in 1971, the rapid erosion of the sand is considerable.

In the mid 19th century, when the Saco River became a federal navigable waterway, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a 1,280 meter-long jetty on the northern side of the mouth of the Saco River in Camp Ellis to prevent silt build up. When silt build up continued, a lower southern jetty was constructed at Hills Beach. While effects of the northern jetty have devastated Camp Ellis, the southern jetty has also affected those on Hills Beach.

The placement of the Hills Beach jetty, combined with the road that leads out to Basket Island (only travelable during low tide), creates a bowl effect for the tide. As the tide comes in to Hills Beach, the waves gather speed along the jetty, and then curve along the beach, similar to how the tide affects Camp Ellis. In Hills Beach, however, the tide then hits the road that leads to Basket Island, causing the sand to be churned up in a circular motion before taking the sand back out to sea.

In fall 2017, Saco and Biddeford teamed up to perform a marine debris cleanup prior to a dredge of the river near the westerly portion of Saco River, near the downtown area. The two cities split the $150,000 cost for the marine cleanup. The Army Corps of Engineers then came through with a vessel to dredge, but was unable to complete the dredge due to an early onset of ice on the river. The vessel also ran into trouble with river debris clogging up the suction, having to stop frequently to clear the tubes.

This fall, the Army Corps of Engineers will enact another dredge of the Saco River, this time bringing a mechanic dredge. The dredge will begin in November, and the Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing offers from companies to execute the project. During the dredge, 140,000 cubic yards of material will be removed from the river to reestablish depth for easier navigation. These cubic yards of sand are destined to be used to reinforce the beach at Camp Ellis, whose community has lost dunes, a railroad, four streets, and 38 homes to erosion. Prior to the 2015 dredge, the last substantial dredge was in 1969, resulting in the removal of 160,000 cubic yards of material.

According to Christine Ohman, grant writer and special projects funding coordinator for the city of Biddeford and leader in the Saco River dredging effort, a sand replenishment for Hills Beach was originally included in the proposal. However, the Army Corps of Engineers deemed it cost prohibitive. The damage to Camp Ellis is so great that the decision was to exclusively to replenish on the northern side of the two jetties.

“The Saco River is competing against 63 other rivers for Army Corps attention. If there was unlimited funding, everyone would be happy,” Ohman said.

Hills Beach is lined with oceanfront homes, and while it is technically a public beach, there are limited public access points and no designated public beach parking lots.

Cronkite maintains that Hills Beach should receive a portion of the sand. The southern jetty in Hills Beach is only visible during low tide and during high tide the water from the beach flows directly from the beach into the mouth of the river.

“It’s Hills Beach sand that’s going into the river,” Cronkite said. “We should be getting that sand back.”

In the city’s dealings with the Army Corps of Engineers, officials put together a price on the economic impact that the Saco River has on Biddeford and Saco. Compiling current and potential revenue from businesses and recreation, the city came up with a cumulative estimate of between $53 to $54 million in economic impact.

Cronkite has been proactive in studying the effects of the erosion in Hills Beach. In 1977 Cronkite conducted a personal study of the tide pattern off Hills Beach using weighted balloons to track tidal movement, and has also been in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers. After the storm in March, Cronkite sent out a “contact all councilors” email via the city website to invite them to visit and see first hand the damage the storm had done to his property, and received what he called a very nice message from City Manager James Bennett. In the email, Bennett assures Cronkite that many hours were spent by city staff pleading a case for Hills Beach sand nourishment, and that while they were disappointed, at this point nothing else could be done to change the decision that all material would go to Camp Ellis.

Mobilizing the equipment for beach replenishment for Hills Beach would cost an estimated $350,000, including a special suction dredge to pump the sand.

“We did everything we could to get Hills Beach included,” Bennett said in a separate interview. “The Army Corps made the final determination.” When asked about Cronkite’s email to the councilors, Ward 1 Councilor Mike Swanton – Hills Beach is located within Ward 1 – said he had nothing to add to the response that had been issued by Bennett. Swanton declined to comment on the erosion and storm damage on Hills Beach.

As for the future, Ohman said it is her hope that some of the material from the future Wood Island/Biddeford Pool dredge will be directed to Hills Beach, a project that is anticipated to yield 45,000 cubic yards of material. As of now, however, plans for the material have not been confirmed. The project is currently in the process of environmental assessment and awaits federal funding before it can be scheduled. Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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