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Facing the Problem of Erosion on Plum Island

Posted on February 21, 2016

Can the good will of government control the properties of a barrier island?

This question was raised over the weekend at Plum Island Point when local leaders met with homeowners near the Reservation Terrace section of the island.

Residents are concerned that since the north and south jetties were completed recently, erosion has increased on the dune-dotted beach in front of their homes.

The Atlantic is not lapping at their property lines as it is on Annapolis and Fordham ways to the south, but homeowners are concerned that more sand is being lost each month. “We are losing 2 to 3 feet of vegetated dunes per storm, and we have not had a nor’easter this winter,” they say.

Almost 50 signed a petition asking officials to do something to control the erosion. Elected leaders including Mayor Donna Holaday, Sens. Kathleen O’Connor Ives and Bruce Tarr, state Reps. James Kelcourse and Lenny Mirra and City Councilor Sharif Zeid walked the beach on Saturday to see for themselves.

One of the suggestions raised is to break a hole in the south jetty so that tidal action can be altered, and erosion there presumably would diminish.

Several verities are involved in this conundrum:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the south and north jetties with the specific mission of improving navigation of vessels. The Corps is likely as sympathetic as anyone that erosion patterns might have changed, but their goal was to ensure that the mouth of the river is clear for the thousands of boats that traverse it each summer.

Despite the ongoing presence of erosion, officials do not have a vetted engineering study that explains what is happening and why. Does the tidal surge move south to north, or north to south? Or both? How do the jetties affect the flow of sand? The Corps of Engineers is reportedly doing a study, but at present there is no single document that explains the tidal life of Plum Island.

Tides have troubled locals for many years. Local historians say Congress was first asked to build a breakwater in 1828-1831. Two elaborate jetties were constructed later in the century (1890-1910) to keep the harbor entrance open, and these long stone structures were rebuilt again in the past few years at a federal cost of $20 million. It appears that the movement of sand and tide is not an easily solved problem.

Of course, consternation has increased since the advent of million-dollar homes.

In the old days, if a tiny seaside cabin was battered by the ocean, families would rebuild for small money.

Since the arrival of water and sewer a decade ago, gorgeous million-dollar homes have replaced the modest summer shacks.

Owners want protection and who can blame them? Plum Island is one of the most magical retreats in the state.

Before committing to a plan of improvement, local officials say they want a useful engineering study to help them take the next step.

This is a group of earnest officials who lobbied hard for the $20 million jetty project. They might be a bit abashed to call for a dismantling of part of the south jetty without any science in hand.

For as long as Plum Island has been a part of Newburyport and Newbury, its vulnerable life as a barrier island has created problems for those who want to enjoy it.

Two winters ago, storms caused destruction of several homes in Newbury, and precipitated many hours of labor and travail for first responders.

Last winter, the sewerage system on the Newburyport side failed. Municipal teams worked around the clock to repair the system, and the cost to ratepayers has been high.

Now those at the northern end of the island are urging local leaders to provide some kind of assistance because the ocean and river are conspiring to change the configuration of the Terrace.

Perhaps there is only so much government can do to hold back nature.

That said, local, state and federal officials are slated to meet this Friday to discuss possible remedies.

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