On the northern tip of an island surrounded by river, marsh and sea, a few dozen volunteers sink shovels into a mound of sand, digging 10,000 holes to plant 20,000 stalks of beach grass.
They’re residents of Reservation Terrace -- a dozen shoreline houses at the latest flashpoint in Plum Island’s long struggle against erosion — and they're hoping the grass will lend their homes some protection.
"Our only line of defense, according to [state environment officials], is sand and dune grass,” says local activist Vern Ellis, who's leading the planting.
Ellis knows it’s an effort worthy of Don Quixote -- a bad storm could easily wash away the grass and the berm -- but he hopes the beach grass buys his little La Mancha some time. The grass will nourish a berm put in place after a series of devastating winter storms caused repeated flooding on Reservation Terrace.
"The grass grows really, really deep roots, 3, 4 feet down, and it spreads and it basically holds the sand in place," Ellis says. "And this stuff is really resilient. It could get buried up to about a foot of sand and will come back up through it."
That is, Ellis adds, unless someone steps on it and breaks it.
Ellis organized his neighbors to buy and plant the beach grass in the 100 feet of sand that separates them from the ocean. He says the grass-planting comes in response to a massive bout of beach erosion at the mouth of the Merrimack River, which opens to the Atlantic Ocean.
“When we first moved here there was 400 more feet of dunes out into the river,” Ellis says. “So in four years we've lost 400 feet of dunes.”
The cause of the erosion is fiercely debated on the island. Some residents blame a jetty repair project conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2013, the year Ellis moved in. The Army Corps, on the other hand -- and some residents — attribute the erosion to natural cycles, implying that it’s only a matter of time before the beach is restored.
Regardless of the cause, Ellis and his neighbors say four-fifths of their beach has been washed away, and deposited in other areas around the island.
Island Of Sand
Up near the New Hampshire border, Plum Island is an 11-mile strip of sand -- one of 681 so-called barrier beaches in Massachusetts. It’s a land form in flux. And as Ellis and his neighbors are witnessing — not just in geological time.
"The erosion is coming," Ellis says, “but we only have 20 [or] 30 more years here on planet Earth, and we might as well enjoy it while we can."
Ellis isn’t the first to plant beach grass on the island. A team from the University of New Hampshire, working on a grant related to Hurricane Sandy relief, got the ball rolling in 2013, logging thousands of volunteer hours and purchasing equipment that Ellis and his neighbors continue to use.
Plum Island is a case study in how communities are reacting not just to the ebb-and-flow of nature, but to a changing ocean. The prospect of rising sea levels makes this all the more critical for Plum Island and others coastal communities like it. A recent report found roughly 90,000 homes along the Massachusetts coast could face chronic flooding by the end of the century, thousands of those in the next few decades.
Green Vs. Gray
Plum Island is also a study in contrasts in the use of different resiliency measures. Ellis’ beach grass is what’s considered “green infrastructure,” a tread lightly approach that seeks to enhance and complement the natural environment. Others on Plum Island are committed to the more permanent, hardened solutions of walls and barriers, known as “gray infrastructure.”
“All hell has just broken loose up here,” Bob Connors told WCVB-TV back in 2013, as a storm pounded his neighborhood. “We’ve got several homes now that have been compromised, one has actually gone in, it’s collapsed onto the beach, and another one to the left, his foundation was just compromised."
Starting with Sandy in 2012, successive storms rocked the beach in front of Connors’ neighborhood, Annapolis Way. The March storm was the coup de grace.
It led Connors and his neighbors to buck state government and install – on average – $40,000 worth of boulders on the beach in front of their homes.
Connors and Ellis are a yin and yang of DIY coastal resiliency. Where Ellis lives on a public beach, Connors owns the beach in front of his house. Where Ellis received approval from the authorities to plant beach grass, Connors went against the state and led his neighborhood in constructing massive stone barriers along the shore, known as rip raps.
According to Connors, he had little choice. He says an agent from the Department of Environmental Protection was threatening to issue huge fines — $10,000 a day per home -- if he and his neighbors went against coastal building rules and put in rip raps.
But a storm of political pressure and media scrutiny ensued on behalf of the neighbors, and the state backed down.
“Government timeline never matches that of Mother Nature, or when you're having a natural disaster,” Connors says, standing on the deck of a home that sits on 40-foot pylons buried in the sand. “If we had tried to go through the normal permitting process and then trying to overcome the yeas and the nays of whether you should or shouldn't do it, we would have lost probably 40 homes.”
Five years later, Connors says the rip raps are doing their job, though that requires constantly replacing rocks dislodged by the waves.
He says it’s worth the tens of thousands it costs him and the endless effort. For Connors, Annapolis Way is the frontline of an existential battle against an angry ocean.
“We're trying to defend our property, but in the meantime, we're also defending the infrastructure of our roadway,” he says. “We're defending the Great Marsh. … If Plum Island or other barriers weren't here, the Great Marsh would be gone.
“So, where do you decide to draw the line and make a stance? Do you have a right to protect your property -- to protect your family?”
Some on Plum Island see Connors as a renegade. What if everybody shirked the rules and built walls along the beach?
Others say it’s a task of Sisyphus, the Greek king forced to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll back down.
Gregg Moore, an ecologist from the University of New Hampshire and a known entity among the advocates of Plum Island, says there’s little question the rip rap is working -- for now.
“I think while it works, it's absolutely buying time,” Moore says.
Standing in front of the rip rap near Connors’ neighborhood, Moore says he teaches his students about the green approach of Ellis versus the gray approach of Connors.
“This is gray infrastructure, right, this is taking an engineered solution of gray stones and putting it in place," Moore says. "And when we plant dune grass on the dunes, that's our green infrastructure. And, you know, perhaps there's a way to marry those two technologies together to protect a system.
“You've got to applaud, I guess, people for doing what they can within their capacity to protect their resource. I can't predict if this is going to be sustainable. At some of the locations it's not been enough. Right now, today, on a beautiful, sunny day, it looks like it's working.”
But Moore says these days a disastrous storm is always right around the corner for Plum Island. And if the trend doesn’t break and the projections of several feet of sea level rise are accurate, Moore says some islanders will have to consider retreat.
Building houses on Plum Island wasn’t always the norm. The colonial settlers used it mainly to graze livestock and harvest salt hay, and it wasn’t until the late 1800s when people started building summer cottages on the island.
"And then it started, more and more people had little tiny shacks,” says Bill Sargent, a science writer and advocate who's focused on Plum Island for the last several years. “A lot of them were often built with driftwood."
But the cottages multiplied, and today Plum Island has more than a thousand houses clustered at the top of the island. The rest is a national wildlife refuge.
"It was actually only in 2004 that [authorities decided to] put the water lines and the sewer lines in," Sargent says, "and as soon as they did that then people started to take these small houses and remodel them and make them into permanent year-round homes. That's when you got into trouble.”
As a scientist, Moore sees the cataclysms underway as inevitable. But as someone who’s been playing on the island since he was a kid -- and who’s spent years doing research there -- he’s not ready to watch the homes fall into the ocean.
“When it’s your property, when it’s your home, it’s very hard to separate the cold harsh truth of science against -- some homeowners here have lived here their whole life, and it’s very difficult to give up the fight for them," he says.
As for Ellis at the mouth of the Merrimack, he decided to end the fight after the havoc of last winter.
“It was really hard because we love living there," he says. "And it's just so beautiful. But after the storms in March … it washed over the dunes into the street all along Reservation Terrace, and that first storm in March. There were eight high tides and it washed over every single high tide. That’s when you know … this is not good.”
Ellis plans to sell his dream house later this year -- the one he built and moved into five years ago -- and move to downtown Newburyport. He says he wants to buy a cottage on the island, but he feels he needs to sell his current home in order to “retain our equity.”
Of all the differences Ellis shares with Connors, perhaps that’s the biggest of all: Connors doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
“As this coastal crisis continues … government will adapt,” he says. “Will everybody survive? Time will tell. ... The neighborhoods that are cohesive and act as a group will survive. Those that are splintered and are thinking that everyone else is going to do it for them -- time will tell.”
One thing Ellis and Connors agree on is they want the powers that be to come up with an action plan for Plum Island, and put up the money to execute it.
But in a country that spends almost nine-tenths of its flood preparedness dollars after major floods, the piecemeal approach of green and gray infrastructure may be the last stand.
Support for this essay was provided by the Weather Eye Award, an award given to distinguished local reporters by RiseLocal, a project of New America’s National Network.