The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: The tidal flats of Brewster, Orleans, & Eastham
Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.
Measuring approximately 12,000 acres at low tide, the tidal flats that run along the coastline of Cape Cod Bay are the largest flats in North America. The unique area extends some 9.7 miles along the shore from Brewster to North Eastham. As many beachgoers, nature lovers, walkers, and artists are aware, at low tide portions of the flats extend up to two miles off shore, creating a spectacular, naturally recurring recreation area.
Much like other areas of the Cape as well as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, erosion is affecting the flats and the beaches behind them. In particular, areas such as Skaket Beach in Orleans and Breakwater Beach and Paine’s Creek in Brewster have felt the effects.
In Orleans, officials have been keeping a close eye on Skaket Beach. In recent years, the east end of the popular beach has been losing three to four inches annually due to erosion, while the west end, near Namskaket Creek, has been losing almost five feet per year.
Dawson Farber, harbormaster for the Town of Dennis who served in the same role for the Town of Orleans from 1996 to 2014, adds insight on what is happening. “If you think of Cape Cod as an arm, Orleans is the hook of the elbow,” Farber says. “There is a lot of energy forced into that area, especially in the fall and winter when the storm winds come from the northwest.” The wind eats away at the protective sand dunes at Skaket, with the sediment either getting pulled back and deposited onto the tidal flats, or pushed forward and ending up coating the beach’s parking lot.
This scenario has played out annually for the past decade, but Farber says the erosion has worsened in the past five to seven years—and the town has often paid to scrape up the sand and redeposit it back on the beach. About 10 years ago, Farber says the sand would often be pushed the other way, ending up on the flats.
To re-nourish the dunes, the Town of Orleans has purchased sand to shore up the damaged areas, and from 2000 to 2010 acquired permitting so that front-end loaders could drive out onto the flats to retrieve sand that had been pulled from the beach. This latter effort was halted when beachgoers complained, Farber says, “that the sand wasn’t the same color as the rest of the beach.” In both scenarios, Farber recalls times when the entirety of the “re-nourishment sand” would be washed back onto the flats in a single storm.
A half-mile to the west, the area around Namskaket Creek—which serves as a natural border between Orleans and Brewster—has also seen a tremendous loss of coastline in recent decades. “From 1995 to 2005 there was a loss of 30 to 40 feet of coastal embankment [on the Orleans side], with some spots losing as much as 50 feet,” Farber says. He adds that a few cottages built along the embankment had to be relocated in 1996.
Further west, beaches in Brewster are experiencing similar issues. Chris Miller, director of Brewster’s department of natural resources, has seen the town’s coastline transformed drastically during his eight-plus years on the job. He says the main problem areas are Breakwater Beach and Paine’s Creek, and the latter’s biggest issue involves the parking lot.
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