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Ellicott dredger finally slated to be deployed in Maine; dredge has been sitting idle for months due to bureaucratic delays

Saco Bay

Posted on March 20, 2024

The dream of getting a dredge machine in the water is getting closer for residents in Saco and other coastal municipalities in York County.

With an agreement in place for an Army Corps project to offset coastal erosion caused by the Saco Jetty, talks in Saco have shifted to determine what additional measures can be done to protect the city’s coast.

The Saco Jetty has been a source of coastal erosion as it displaces wave energy and the natural movement of sand, and a plan to mitigate its damage has been discussed for decades. On Jan. 30, the City of Saco and the Army Corps of Engineers signed an agreement for a $45 million project to build a spur jetty to help offset the damage and deliver beach fill.

This was good news that many people had waited years to hear, but in light of recent storms, many coastal community members are asking what else can be done to save the shoreline. Many worry that there needs to be a Band-Aid to hold the area over for a few years until the jetty project is complete, and many also worry that with storms getting worse, the Army Corps project is not the end-all solution, and there needs to be supplementary measures in place.

This was evident recently at discussions over the past week at the Coastal Resilience Convening session at Ferry Beach Conference Center on March 7, the Saco Bay Symposium at Saco City Hall on March 8, and a City Council Workshop on March 18.

Brian Ambrette, senior climate resilience coordinator with the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, on Friday’s symposium gave some insight on “how extraordinary the last 13 months have been in Maine from a disaster perspective.” Over the past ten years, the state has averaged about one federal disaster declaration every two years, he said. The state has had six declarations from the December storm in 2022 to the December storm in 2023. This, of course, does not include the two storms in January, as official declarations are still pending.

“That’s fairly extraordinary, the number of disasters that Maine is dealing with at the moment,” he said.

David Plavin, a resident of the Camp Ellis coastal community and Vice President of local advocacy group SOS Saco Bay, asked at the March 8 symposium if there was anything that could be done to “keep us together” while the city waits for the jetty to be completed.

At the March 7 meeting, Ferry Beach Conference Center Director Cathy Stackpole said people nees to look at all aspects, not just the jetty, that are impacting the Maine coast, and there needs to be collaboration between coastal communities as well as with state and federal agencies. She noted that while a nearby hardscape seawall had protected the area in front of it in recent storms, the sand on both sides of it hallowed out. She said every year the conference center replaces plants in the protective stretch of dune grass, but this year after five feet of dune erosion, there will need to be a much larger restoration effort.

Peter Slavinsky, marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, gave an overview of the January storms at the March 8 symposium .

“Those two events hammered much of the Maine coastline, not just Saco,” he said.

Water levels during the storms were exacerbated by a rise in sea level, said Slavinsky, and dune erosion in Saco averaged about 13 feet.

A dune restoration project that is continuous along the coast and includes a secondary higher dune ridge could be one way to help strengthen the shore against future storms, said Slavinsky.

Another idea is to rethink beach foot paths, which often become channels that funnel water into coastal neighborhoods, said Slavinsky. Beach paths could be reconstructed so they zigzag and don’t channel water, or could be changed to raised walkways over dunes so there is uninterrupted dune grass. Coastal communities like Saco could also consider closing roads ahead of storms and putting up temporary barriers, said Slavinsky.

Another possible solution that is advocated by many local residents to help ease storm damage is building up the beach by bringing in more sand.

York County Commissioners voted in late 2022 to purchase a dredge machine with $1.54 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. The idea to buy the machine was introduced by the coastal advocacy group Saco Bay Shores, with the intent that it be used by coastal communities along York County to replenish beaches with sand.

The original intent was for the dredge to be owned by the newly-formed non-profit Southern Maine Dredge Authority. However, since then, there have been some complications regarding how to hand over the federally purchased machine, and the dredge machine has sat unused for many months in the Saco Public Works garage.

York County Commissioner Justin Chenette said at the March 11 workshop said it was the county’s intention to get the dredge machine in the water as soon as possible, and it was exploring county ownership of the machine.

“This is an urgent manner, and we can’t sit idly by and wait around for the federal government to tell us what we can and cannot do,” he said.

Chenette said the county was working with a consultant and learned that there were some unanticipated additional costs. In order to get the dredge into the water for four to five days, with an outside team coming in, it will cost about $8,500 a day. Chenette said the county was looking at different avenues to get money to cover costs needed to get the dredge operational.

Saco City Administrator John Bohenko said at a March 18 City Council meeting that he had recently met with York County officials, and while a plan of action for the dredge machine is still preliminary, things look promising. He said it is anticipated the dredge machine will be moved on March 24 from the Saco Public Works garage to the harbor in Wells.

He said county officials also discussed the possibility of hiring an engineer to work with the various municipalities for permitting with state and federal agencies. The City of Saco has about $160,000 set aside for costs related to the dredge, he said.


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