York County spearheads beach restoration in wake of storm damage: 'Let’s get this done'

Tammy Wells
York County Government

ALFRED, Maine — York County’s Ellicott dredge is set to depart from Saco to Portland this April. The relocation prepares the vessel for a crucial mission: restoring beaches and sand dunes along the coast ravaged by January’s severe storms.

The plan is to have the dredge assembled at Portland Yacht Services and then towed to Wells, where it will be moored until the dredging season commences in November.

The York County government dredge will be headed to Portland soon for assembly and then down to Wells, where it will be moored in advance of dredging season.

York County Manager Greg Zinser said he has spoken to seven of the county’s coastal municipalities – Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Biddeford, Kennebunkport, Kennebunk, Wells and Ogunquit about the plans and would also talk with York, Eliot and Kittery officials. Two of the municipalities – Wells and Ogunquit, have dredging permits in place.

He told York County Commissioners at their March 20 meeting that the reception has been positive.

“Everyone is saying ‘let’s get this done – let’s make it happen,’” he said.

Previous story:Maine to receive federal aid for January storms that devastated coast

York County is expected to enter into agreements with the municipalities, which will pay the county for the work done.

Communities across York County sustained $20 million in damage to public infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, culverts, beaches, sand dunes- and more in the Jan. 10 and 13 storms. In all, there was an estimated $70 million in damage in eight of Maine’s coastal counties.

A seawall, which stretches along portions of Kennebunk Beach, was destroyed along with the sand dunes behind it during January's storms.

President Joe Biden on March 20 formally declared a disaster from the two January storms at the request of Gov. Janet Mills – which means communities are eligible for reimbursements through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help cover costs associated with repairs and, in some cases, mitigation.

Zinser said he and York County Emergency Management Agency Director Art Cleaves have been speaking with Michels Construction Inc. on logistics and other matters and has also been working with a consultant. County officials will converse with the University of New England regarding surveys and marine mapping.

Path to restoration:Wells Disaster Center offers lifeline after devastating storms

Cleaves pointed out that dredging services offered by the county would be more cost-efficient than the expenses associated with bringing in a dredge from elsewhere.

Zinser said significant investments in equipment will need to be made and is working with Michels Construction Inc. to help determine those costs.

York County Commissioners agreed in late 2022 to purchase a dredge with $1.54 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help combat coastal erosion, nourish beaches with sand, and help keep waters navigable – an idea advanced by the nonprofit SOS Saco Bay.

The intent when the project was approved was that a new nonprofit entity – Southern Maine Dredge Authority – would be created and take ownership, but the authority was not fully operational when the dredge was purchased. Complications with federal rules of disposition and the like are unresolved, so the county retains ownership.

Commissioner Donna Ring thanked Zinser and the others who have worked on the project.

“I know this is not what we intended,” said Ring, referring to the ownership matter.

York County is not the first New England County to offer a dredging program – Barnstable, Massachusetts, has been offering dredging services to municipalities for the past 27 years. According to their website, 14 Cape Cod towns use the service. The 2020-21 season saw 150,591 cubic yards dredged in Barnstable County, a program record for that county, officials said.