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The Changing Shape of Popponesset Beach, Mashpee

Editor’s note: This is the 7th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

Paul Rifkin - 2014-1

Photography by Paul Rifkin

Located in southeastern Mashpee, Popponesset is a small, quiet and scenic village with a population of just 220, according to the most recent U.S. Census. The village is situated along Popponesset Bay, which is fed by the Mashpee and Santuit rivers, which lead out to Nantucket Sound through a channel around the Popponesset Spit, a lengthy yet narrow extension of Popponesset Beach that doubles as a popular summer attraction and a barrier between ocean and bay.

The Popponesset Spit has been in a state of flux since at least the mid-1800s. According to a 1982 report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, from 1844 to 1954 records show that the spit grew to nearly 1.75 miles in length with a width across of 260 feet. In Arthur Strahler’s book A Geologist’s View of Cape Cod (1966), a map of the area shows the spit extending a good distance past the opening to Popponesset Bay—and seemingly headed for Cotuit.

Beginning in 1954, the spit was split in two following a series of three hurricanes: Carol, Edna, and Hazel. The resulting channel and its tides caused the eastern portion to eventually be absorbed into the Cotuit shore, while helping to facilitate the erosion of the western end into a shorter beach spit. Today, the spit extends just under three quarters of a mile from Popponesset Beach, with the tip bending in toward the bay at a sharp angle; at its widest, the spit’s width is just 155 feet—or one half the length of a football field—across.

Andrew McManus, Mashpee’s conservation agent, commented on efforts underway to slow the erosion of the spit. “There are currently three ongoing dredge permits in Mashpee,” McManus states, “all of which take place in Popponesset Bay. The dredging helps to keep navigation channels open for boats coming in and out of Popponesset Bay into Vineyard Sound. The dredge spoils are deposited onto the Popponesset Spit annually to help re-nourish, fortify and protect the spit from storm damage and subsequent erosion.”

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