There is no stopping the sea on Plum Island. What helped some residents salvage their homes five years ago is now threatening others following another relentless winter of winds and waves.
Erosion problems are nothing new to the 11-mile long, half-mile wide barrier island, where beach homes are divided between Newbury and Newburyport. During three major storms in the winter of 2012-2013, six homes were destroyed, seven condemned, and 24 deemed in imminent danger in the area of Annapolis Way on the Newbury side of the island.
To resolve the erosion problem, in May 2013 the Army Corp of Engineers rebuilt the south jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River. The repair successfully stabilized the Newbury neighborhood, but in the process created new dangers about 1½ miles north in Newburyport.
Powerful storms once again battered Plum Island this winter, washing away sand dunes and leaving homes along Reservation Terrace at Plum Island Point precariously close to the water. In quick response, a coalition of neighbors, federal, state, and local officials rallied to move over 1,000 cubic feet of sand to stabilize the dangerous erosion.
About 10 houses are in imminent danger and another 20 were flooded in March and face an uncertain future if the dunes continue to erode.
“We have never seen this kind of washover before,” said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday. “Beautiful homes are at risk.”
Alarmed even before the nor’easters hit, 53 neighbors signed a letter to federal, state, and city officials last September, warning they “must act now to avoid a catastrophic event.”
“We have lost approximately 50 to 60 feet of dunes since February and 400 feet of dunes in the past four years,” said Vernon Ellis, who lives at the end of 77th Street, adjacent to the eroding beach in Newburyport. “This is not natural erosion, it is a man-made problem exacerbated by climate change and storm surge. This all started back in 2013 when the Army Corp of Engineers rebuilt the south jetty.”
Another resident of the neighborhood shared Ellis’s frustration.
“The persistent dune erosion, with no permanent resolution under review or consideration, leaves homeowners along Reservation Terrace with band-aide remedies that lower property values, decrease tax revenue for the city, and inevitably cause homes to plunge into the ocean,” said John Lyon, who owns a home on the corner of 69th Street facing the beach.
The Department of Conservation and Recreation has tried to stem the problem by building a dune along the Merrimack River near Reservation Terrance that cost approximately $150,000 in 2016, according to spokeman Troy Wall.
The DCR invested in protecting the dune with a nourishment planting and fencing project during 2016 and 2017, Wall said. But now that dune, which served as a barrier, has washed away.
As an emergency stopgap measure, the City of Newburyport — with financial help from residents — has created a new 1,000-foot-long, 6-foot feet high man-made berm out of compressed sand.
“The neighborhood residents raised $17,000 for sand. This equals approximately 1,100 tons, 35 trailer loads, or 875 cubic yards of sand used to create a temporary berm,” said Ellis. “We also purchased 20,000 culms [stems] of beach grass, to be planted by volunteers, that will provide nutrition and help stabilize the berm. An additional 500-plus cubic yards of sand were moved from the Captain’s Fishing Pier area” farther north.
The sand had aggregated from a beach on the basin side of the island, causing problems for boaters at the fishing pier.
“Over the years, we have gained a lot of sand on this end of the island,” said Chris Charos of Captain’s Fishing Parties and Cruises on 82nd St. in Newburyport. “We are just taking a small amount of that sand and putting it back where it came from.”
“It was an amazing hurdle to move all this sand,” said Holaday. “This has been a successful, cooperative effort. There is no way that I could go to the City Council and ask them to pay for sand to be put on state property.”
The City of Newburyport utilized its Department of Public Services staff, supervised by Deputy Director Wayne Amaral, to move the sand using rented Bobcats. Because the new barrier is in a federally designated critical piping plover habit, a 10-day window was granted to move the sand after April 1.
“This was an emergency that required quick action,” said Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester). “We couldn’t have accomplished this without the help of Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who coordinated the approvals of all the government agencies involved in a very short period of time.
“We know that the sand used to create a temporary berm will probably be sacrificial, but it is necessary to stabilize the situation, as we look at long-term plans to prevent further erosion,” said Tarr, who serves as cochair of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, an unofficial coalition of public officials, nonprofits, and residents that is looking for long-term solutions to ongoing erosion.
Looking ahead, the MRBA is awaiting a new study by the Army Corp of Engineers that examines the possibility of dredging sand from the Merrimack River and using it to build up beaches affected by erosion, Tarr said.
Another possibility is raising the parking fees at Plum Island lots, with the increase going into a fund that would be used to fortify the dunes.
“The temporary berm is only a Band-Aid for the erosion problem,” said Ellis. “We need to look at the south jetty’s impact on the erosion and find an equilibrium that protects both locations and the environment.”