PLUM ISLAND — Vincent Russo has owned a house on Northern Boulevard for 35 years. Two or three times a week, he walks a 2- to 3-mile stretch of the beach — from the south jetty to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's part of my weight management program," said the 68-year-old surgeon.
Around 1999, he noticed some rocks on the beach that had previously been buried. About six years ago, he noticed another rock formation emerging from the sand, a few hundred yards north of the first one.
What he was seeing was a system of groins, massive granite structures built to trap sand on the beach. That they were exposed was not a good omen.
"These were all signs that there was massive erosion," Russo said.
Russo isn't the only one sounding an alarm. A growing number of people are worried that the island faces a new danger, caused by the ever-present grind of wind, tide and water, and the federal government's inability or unwillingness to take the kind of action it has in the past to protect the beach.
Over the past few months, the call to fix the problem has grown in intensity, pushed on by each storm that chews another chunk of dune. The sea marches steadily toward Plum Island Center, where all roads on and off the island merge. Since 1985, at least 150 feet of protective dune has disappeared at the Island Center, much of it over the past five years. Less than 70 feet remains.
Politics has also become embedded in the beach's woes. There are disagreements over what should be done, how it should be done, and who should pay.
Science is also deeply embedded. The harshest mechanisms of nature are in full play along the fragile sand coast. The evidence of erosion is clear, but not everyone agrees on the causes.
At the center of it all is the most precious commodity of all — sand. A tremendous quantity is needed to turn back the tide. Where will it come from? Where will it be placed? Who will benefit the most? Where will the money come from? These are questions that have yet to be answered.
Plea for help
Russo, the chairman of Newbury's Board of Selectmen, was one of the first to publicly sound the alarm.
He had long since stopped walking on the huge granite jetty at the northern tip of the island because the jetty had deteriorated, pulled apart by the waves. Some parts are slowly sinking, and are submerged at high tide.
Elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2004, Russo said he believed the deteriorating condition of the jetty was largely responsible for the eroding beach.
"My take on it at the time was that the jetty was only doing bad things," he said. "It was blocking the southward flow of sand and channeling water onto the beach, where it was scouring the sand off."
Construction of the jetty was completed in 1905. Another jetty on the north side of the channel at Salisbury Beach was completed in 1915. The jetties had not been repaired since 1970.
Russo began writing to U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and to Congressman John Tierney in an attempt to get federal funding for jetty repairs.
He got Edward O'Donnell, navigational services chief for the New England District of the Army Corps of Engineers, to look at the damaged jetty and O'Donnell agreed that it needed to be repaired.
Russo said O'Donnell told him the Army Corps, which built and maintained jetties, would do the necessary preparatory studies on the work, but that the project would still need congressional funding.
The Army Corps has estimated it will cost $2.5 million to repair them, O'Donnell said, although the agency may survey them again to make sure its numbers are up to date. Otherwise, he said, the project is ready to go, "we just need the funding."
When it came time to get the money, Russo said, he received no responses from the senators' offices. He said he was notified by an aide to Tierney that there was no money for jetty repair in the Army Corps budget, only for clearing channels. Moreover, the Army Corps is concentrating its resources on larger commercial ports.
Dredging of the Merrimack River channel, which used to occur every three to five years, has not been done since 1999 and local officials believe the mouth of the river is filling up with the very sediments needed to replenish the beach.
Tierney obtained a federal appropriation of $654,000 for the dredging late last year, but the Army Corps has estimated the project cost at $1.4 million. Another $700,000 to $800,000 would be needed to deposit the dredged sand directly onto the beach, of which the federal financial share would be 65 percent, with the other 35 percent coming from state and local sources.
O'Donnell said the Army Corps would need to study whether there would be a government benefit before adding the on-shore deposit to the scope of work.
"The flood damage we prevent would have to be more than the added costs," he said.
Plum Island's beach has been ebbing and flowing for centuries as storms and natural tidal forces and wave action gradually take sand off the shore and put it back on.
Over the years, especially strong storms have occasionally washed away houses, usually seasonal cottages or camps of limited dollar value.
But the island has changed. The rustic camps have been replaced with million dollar, year-round homes. Those homes are served by Newburyport water and sewer services, not wells and septic systems as in the past.
The beach has been eroding and shows no sign of replenishing itself. The damage was aggravated by the Patriots Day storm in April 2007.
Russo chooses his words carefully when describing the level of assistance he has received from the congressional delegation, because he acknowledges that Plum Island needs the support of its senators and representative.
"I think our congressional delegation has been very patient listening to me, but because of the war in Iraq and a major diversion of federal funds there hasn't been much action," he said.
In late fall, a group of island homeowners met at the Northern Boulevard home of Marc Sarkady to discuss what could be done to preserve the beach. The group concluded that the island needed the services of Washington lobbyist Howard Marlowe, whose firm specializes in securing federal funds for beach replenishment.
Sarkady and Annapolis Way resident Robert Connors emerged as the spokesmen for the group.
Connors and Sarkady said Newburyport and Newbury both have a stake in replenishing the beach at Plum Island. Sarkady said there are 93 beachfront properties in Newbury and 25 in Newburyport, with another 289 properties in the two communities within a block from the ocean.
The loss of even a single home to beach erosion would likely have a detrimental effect on the values of all the properties on the island, Sarkady said. That would decrease the tax revenue from the island to Newbury and Newburyport, shifting the burden to other sections of both communities, he said.
Both men said there are also public safety issues involved. If a main road on the island were swamped, some residents might not be able to get to the mainland.
Sarkady and Connors argued that beach replenishment is a project with ramifications beyond Plum Island.
Beachfront homes pay annual property taxes of between $10,000 and $20,000 each, they said.
Moreover, if the newly installed water or sewer lines were breached by the ocean, the saltwater could contaminate the systems on the mainland as well as on the island, they have said.