SACO, Maine — Through the decades, the ocean has destroyed more than 30 homes in the seaside village of Camp Ellis. It's washed away roadways, utility poles and wires, seawalls, and sewer and water lines.
Property owners have long sought a remedy, and numerous studies have looked at the problem without an answer.
Now, a new in-depth report is recommending a solution, giving residents more hope than ever that something — finally — might be done. If all goes to plan, a new rock jetty would be built to keep beach-eroding waves away, and the beach would be replenished with nearly a billion pounds of sand.
"We've never gotten to this point before. We're ready to go," said Rick Milliard, who grew up in Camp Ellis and now lives a few houses back from the beach. "I think it's this time or probably no time."
Nowhere else in Maine — or perhaps New England — has prolonged beach erosion wreaked the havoc it has at Camp Ellis, a small community in Saco at the mouth of the Saco River. It has about 20 streets with old homes on small lots, a neighborhood store and two seasonal restaurants. A public pier, commercial fishing boats and marinas are situated on the river.
The shoreline here has been eroding away for decades, thanks to a breakwater built by the federal government in the 1800s that juts into the ocean. The jetty protects the entrance channel to the Saco River, but it prevents sand from the river from moving north and replenishing the Camp Ellis beach; it also deflects ocean waves toward the beach, accelerating the erosion.
Two breakwaters are at the mouth of the river. The problematic one to the north, which is now 6,600 feet long, was first built between 1868 and 1871. The 4,500-foot south jetty was built in the 1890s. Both jetties were extended and altered over the years, and the erosion became particularly bad in the 1950s after the last of a series of extensions.
Through the years the beachfront has eroded away, making the community vulnerable during the nor'easters and other wild storms that have taken away homes and roads. About 30 property lots that existed in 1908 are now submerged, according to a 81-page document released last month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some of the property owners still own their lots, now under water, and even pay taxes on them.
Milliard's father built a home around 1950 a couple of houses back from the ocean. He later sold the cottage, and the new owner eventually had to move it because of the encroaching ocean. "If it were here today, it would be underwater," he said.
What sets the latest study apart is its use of in-depth computer models of tides, currents and waves that show exactly where the beach-eroding waves come from, giving engineers a better idea of possible solutions.
In the end, the Army Corps came up with about 30 alternatives, including removing the north jetty, building new jetties in various locations or simply replenishing the beach with new sand. The report even looked at a buy-out plan to purchase and demolish all properties within the projected 50-year erosion zone.
The recommended alternative proposes building a 750-foot jetty to run perpendicular to the north jetty about 1,500 feet from shore and replenishing the beach with 365,000 cubic yards of sand. Getting the sand to the beach would require one tandem-axle dump truck load every six minutes for 12 hours each day for four months, said Saco City Administrator Richard Michaud.
The projected cost is about $23 million, to be paid for by the Army Corps of Engineers. The plan's 30-day public comment period ends Tuesday.
Michaud said if the project moves forward, it will probably take a year to get the appropriate permits, after which the Corps would build the rock jetty and then bring in the beach fill. The timetable is unclear, but he thinks in a best-case scenario construction of a new jetty could possibly begin in the late summer of 2015.
Congress has authorized the project and $26 million toward it, he said.
The city still has to figure out how to pay for future costs, he said. After the initial project is completed, the Army Corps says the beach will need to be replenished with more sand about every 12 years at an estimated cost of roughly $2 million to $4 million, depending on the rate of sea level change. Those costs, according to the plan, will be split evenly between the Corps and a "local partner," which could be the city, the county or the state.
Michaud is hopeful that the state will step in and help share the costs, especially given that Ferry Beach State Park, just north of Camp Ellis, stands to benefit.
"I think we are at a decision point on this project," Michaud said. "We need to decide whether to move forward or not. I support moving forward."
Saco Mayor Mark Johnston has seen government reports come and go in the past.
"Let's hope this isn't another study using taxpayer money that sits around uselessly," Johnston said. "I'm getting to the point where I think if we piled up all the studies that have been done in the ocean, we'd have another breakwater."
But with the erosion accelerating and spreading to other beaches to the north, the time for action has arrived, said Cristina Trahan, who owns a bed-and-breakfast a few lots back from the ocean. Some homeowners have put their homes on stilts to keep them out of harm's way, and roads are sometimes covered in calf-deep sand after storms.
"We need something immediately because it's gotten to the point where we see way too much damage to the beach and properties," she said. "It's sad to see what was a beautiful beach reduced to almost nothing."