, Newburyport, MA

January 4, 2013

A longterm look at Plum Island's woes

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Another storm has hit Plum Island and created a crisis for several homeowners, whose homes now totter on the edge of the dune.

This would seem to be a story that’s been told many times in the past few years. But this time it is different. This is the worst case of erosion-caused property damage that we have seen in the past decade, a period in which erosion has steadily destroyed several hundred yards of beachfront dunes.

In the past decade, given the number of headlines and reports about Plum Island’s woes, one might think that widespread property damage has occurred on the island. However, in that time only two waterfront homes have succumbed to dune erosion. The storm that struck last week threatens to increase that number dramatically, and that is what makes this most recent bout of erosion startling.

Despite efforts to use “beach scraping” to build up the dunes, four homes along Annapolis Way have been undermined by extensive erosion that literally scooped out large portions of the sand dune on which the homes sit. One house has lost about half of its foundation, and the others are in lesser stages of distress. There are at least another half dozen homes that are now precariously close to the steep edge of the dune. If another storm strikes with the same ferocity as the one that hit just after Christmas, we can expect that another swath of homes will be undermined.

Interestingly, it’s a different story a few hundred yards to the north, in the area where beach erosion had become a crisis a few years ago. The sand pumped onto the beach by the Army Corps of Engineers’ is largely holding its own, and in some areas, the dune appears to be gaining significant height. It is regrowing. Further north from here, a neighborhood that 40 years ago sat on the precipice of the dune is now 200 yards from the sea’s edge. The dune here is healthy and growing, and no homes have been built on the “regrown” dunes.

And at the southernmost end of Plum Island, some seven miles from these homes, another phenomenon is being noticed. The island is growing substantially, due to an enormous influx of sand pushed here by tides and currents.

What we fail to see, when we focus on the crisis areas, is the overall picture of what is happening on Plum Island. What we know from anecdotal references is that certain areas of the island see substantial ebbs and flows of erosion. The area around Annapolis Way is one of those areas -- in fact, the evidence is starkly clear to anyone who walks the beach. Jumbled piles of concrete slabs, large stones, and other heavy debris have been exposed. They were dumped there in the 1970s, when a crisis of erosion was occurring that claimed property along that very same stretch of beach. The ugly slabs and stones were gradually buried over time, but Mother Nature’s wrath tore away their sandy blanket last week.

Within the next year or so, the Army Corps of Engineers will be releasing a comprehensive study of the sand migration patterns on the island. This study will hopefully provide some much-needed analysis and explanation of the forces at work on the island, and will perhaps identify the areas where erosion is most likely to occur. This will be a useful tool going forward. It will perhaps help our local and state officials to make more comprehensive strategies to stave off erosion and save homes. We may need to accept that substantial buffers along the immediate coast must become the norm.

The gradual rise in sea levels may prove all of these efforts to be a losing battle in the long run. But in the short run, a better understanding of all the forces at work on Plum Island will be a useful tool to have.