PITA NewsLetter

Sponsored by the Plum Island Taxpayers & Associates, Inc. 2017

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Spring  2018    

PITA Newsletter Spring 2018.pdf

PITA’s Aerial Photos Document Beach Erosion and Replenishment

by Dirk Messelaar, PITA

“If you have lived near the mouth of the Merrimack River for the past 49 years, as Steve has,” Atherton’s wife Jill interjects with pride,” being sensitive to the flow and ebb of the sand and ocean around us is built into your DNA.”


Some 10 years ago, PITA President Ron Barrett noticed the paucity of aerial photographs documenting changes on Plum Island beaches and the surrounding shore fronts north and south of the island. Such documentation would provide visual evidence of erosion, as well as the growth and movement of sand — evidence

crucial for various authorities to deal with this issue. PITA developed a work plan to systematically take and distribute pertinent aerial photographs.


So about that time, PITA recruited Ross Wescott, who began taking aerial photos of the shore front from Boar’s Head in Hampton N.H. to Cape Ann, and continued doing that periodically. In 2011, Ron asked Steve Atherton (who has lived on the water at the mouth of the Basin for 49 years)  to join Ross in the photo shoots. Over the next few years Ross slowly reduced his time devoted to the project, and eventually retired. Steve then assumed the responsibility of taking the photos.


The photo shoots are taken in a Cessna 172 — which first flew out of the Plum Island Airfield and later the Hampton Airfield. Over the course of each one-hour flight, Steve


may shoot between 300 and 400 digital images of the coast. These aerial photos are usually taken twice a year, often in the winter and the summer, or simply when needed. Steve typically shoots in morning light, at low tide, and in acceptable weather.


On the morning of the planned shoot, Steve and the pilot develop a flight plan of the area to be covered using a printed aerial map.  After the shoot and back home, Steve downloads his photos  to a computer, edits the images, and copies them to DVDs. Steve’s photographic and digital editing skills have proven valuable for others’ analysis and interpretation as he is able to enhance photos or juxtapose images of a given area taken over time.


These DVDs are distributed to interested parties, which may include the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, the Corps of Engineers, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and others, as requested. This documentation helps interested parties interpret shoreline changes from storms, and from man-made interventions including groins, jetties, dune restoration, sea walls, dredging, and COIR sand bags.


While photography has been an active hobby most of his life, Steve honed his skills with camera and photo editing taking catalogue cover shots and product shots for Lebaron Bonney Co in Amesbury, a world wide business which provides interiors for antique autos. Over his 15 years with the company, he taught himself some of the intricacies of the then newly developing field of digital photography and editing.


Steve’s love of boats and water sports has given him a integral knowledge of Plum Island and Merrimack River waters, which consequently makes it easier for him to target areas to photograph. He’s owned, built, and sailed many sailboats, ranging from a contemporary 27’ fiberglass sloop to a 24’ wooden cat ketch with lee boards.


But, most interestingly, he began windsurfing in 1985 — beginning modestly in front of his waterfront home on the Basin. Early in his windsurfing days, Steve and three of his friends circumnavigated Plum Island aided by an advantageous WSW wind direction, 20-knot winds, and favorable tides.  The three windsurfers started in the Basin, glided out the mouth of the Merrimack River, skimmed south at about 15-20 knots past the

Plum Island beach front into Ipswich Bay, veered into Plum Island Sound, and navigated carefully through the tricky Plum Island River — including the narrow bridge channel — back to the Basin where they had begun.


This passion for windsurfing led him to sail high wind velocity short boards (light 8’-9’ windsurfers) that can zip across the waters at 25-35 knots. Over the next ten years, Steve designed and built over a dozen of these high-speed boards for friends, customers and himself.  Sailing a sailboard served him well in gaining a close and intimate knowledge of our waters and sand system — a knowledge that would prove valuable later in planning for and taking aerial photos.


Photographing Plum Island from the air over the last seven years, Steve has seen many of the natural and man-made features that define the Island’s waterways: breakwaters, dyke remains, groins, and jetties. As a local history buff, he is quick to relate a little interesting history about some of these features.


In an effort to arrive at a solution to the ever-shifting bar at the mouth of the Merrimack River, in 1826 Lt. Colonel I. Anderson completed a detailed survey of the area. He concluded that engineers needed to build a “breakwater" diverting water from the Plum Island River around the westerly side of Woodbridge Island and back to the Merrimack River. This redirected water volume was to create a scouring effect at the mouth, adding depth and stability to the river mouth. The “breakwaters” were  built in 1831 and ran from Old Point across in a westerly direction to Woodbridge Island and then continuing an equal distance on the westerly side of Woodbridge Island toward Newburyport. It didn’t work, and a short ten years after its construction, the breakwater had deteriorated badly. The remains of this breakwater are not only still visible today — but they also act as a navigational hazard to boaters when the remains are hidden under water.


In 1881, fifty years after the breakwater was built, a second project was launched to accomplish the same objective of stabilizing the mouth of the river: building the jetties we see today. While these jetties have maintained the location of the mouth of the river, it has had no success in eliminating our infamous river bar or increasing the depth of the channel.


The dyke at the mouth of the Basin was built in 1883 as part of the jetty project to stop the river from returning south to the previous river channel. Later, in the mid-1950’s and at other times, groins were built perpendicular at various locations on the Plum Island beachfront to help mitigate erosion.


Steve says, “ I do feel that PITA’s efforts to document changes to our fragile shoreline with our aerial photographs will help federal, state and local authorities in their search for short- and long-term solutions to the problems we face.”


As he leans forward from his chair and pats his canine side-kick Bella, a friendly Basengi, Steve finishes the conversation saying “After all, we must help each other to find solutions if we want to continue living in the future on this little strip of barrier beach we call home.”


Past Newsletter Issues


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Inside This Issue

-PITA’s Aerial Photos

-Renew PITA membership!

-The Cottage and Angie’s Redevelopment

-Surveying on Plum Island from a Land Surveyor’s Perspective


-PI Beautification 7pm 1st Tues

- PITA Web Site at plumislandtaxpayers.org

- Rent PITA Hall inexpensively as a Member

- Find PITA now on FaceBook to Contribute photos, comments and listen to @PitaTwita for local up to date happenings.

Renew PITA Membership for 2018 Annual Membership  Drive

$20/year individual membership

$30/year family membership

If you have not already done so, please renew your membership now and support PITA.

Send dues and donations to PITA  at 8 Plum Island Blvd.  Newbury, MA 01951

Or, Contact Susan at sailpi@comcast.net

"Oceanside sand acrrues after jetty repair"