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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: The tidal flats of Brewster, Orleans, & Eastham

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: The tidal flats of Brewster, Orleans, and Eastham, Sept/Oct Cape Cod Life |

Breakwater Beach, Brewster. Photo by Charles Sternaimolo

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Paine’s Creek parking lot had spaces for about 45 vehicles, but that amount has dwindled. “In the last few years it was down to 15 spots,” Miller says. “It was a difficult spot to fix with it being next to the creek.” The town initially moved the parking lot back from the shoreline, and built a culvert to help divert some water that storms were pushing into the creek into nearby Freemans Pond instead. These efforts have helped to restore the area, Miller says.

The changes taking place at Breakwater Beach have been a topic of discussion in Brewster for several years. A number of severe winter storms, beginning with a blizzard in February of 2010, have heavily eroded the beach. In just six years, 20 feet of beach (at high tide) has been lost, threatening the parking lot. Remedies proposed to address the situation have been hotly debated in town because a number of homes surround the beach.

In 2015, a proposal to move the parking lot back 120 feet was approved by the town of Brewster. As part of the project—which was to be completed in July—the dunes were to be built up and supported with beach grass and other vegetation. The project was paid for by a $155,000 grant and $59,675 from the town’s Community Preservation Act funds.    

Now—whereas Paine’s Creek and Breakwater Beach are losing sand due to erosion—there are areas at the east end of Brewster and in Orleans, particularly on the flats, that are gaining it. “There is an erosion loss of one to two feet per year at one end of town,” Miller says, “but areas off the east end of town, like Namskaket, Linnell Landing, Crosby Landing, and into Rock Harbor . . . in those areas the flats are rising.” According to Miller, sand is arriving to the area from beaches to the west, and from Provincetown to the north—and in some spots it’s piling up.

Reflecting on erosion both Miller and Farber commented that local decision makers should put a lot of thought into whatever resolution efforts they decide on—and on how those remedies could affect the region down the road.

“Shoreline hardening projects like jetties and retaining walls act as sand traps,” Farber says. “They create a beach around where they are built, but they rob places down-current of sand. Consideration must be given to those down-drift.” Many would argue the scenario Farber describes fits to a tee the situation that has played out over the past century at Town Neck Beach in Sandwich, which is just down-drift from the jetties stretching out from the Cape Cod Canal’s eastern entrance. Whereas Town Neck Beach to the south of the jetties has been losing sand, Scusset Beach to the north is gaining it.

Miller says dealing with erosion is a public process, and that change can be, at times, hard to accept. “There is always storm damage,” he says. “There are parking lots to restore and beaches to re-nourish. [Addressing erosion] is a matter of long-term planning and staying ahead of the curve. Everything takes time.”

Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.

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