By Bruce Burdett
East Beach is narrow now, covered with cobble, but it wasn’t always so.
Old photos and tales told by grandparents describe a broad expanse of sand with scarcely a stone in sight.
That was back before the Gooseberry causeway was built in the early 1920s.
“Not too long after that people started to notice changes, and not all good ones,” says David Sprogis who lives on nearby Bridge Street.
Now 82 and a retired civil engineer, he said, “I’ve been observing that beach all my life.”
The causeway was already in place when he was born, but “When I was a boy, I remember that this beach was full of soft sand, nice and wide.” Year by year though, “there was less of it … The change wasn’t sudden, went back and forth some, but gradually there was a propagation of stones and the process has clearly accelerated.”
And the more Mr. Sprogis studies the situation, the more he becomes convinced that the change was no accident.
“That causeway interferes with very old and very powerful forces with results that nobody foresaw or worried much about when they built it,” he said.
Now he and others are wondering whether that causeway is doing more harm than good; whether Westport would be better off without that 1,000 foot barrier out to Gooseberry.
Among them is Board of Selectmen member Michael Sullivan. He too had watched the changes but said he was finally spurred to action by some long-time residents like Mr. Sprogis. “He just peppered us with letters and papers about what has happened to these beaches. And he made a lot of sense.”
Mr. Sullivan said there is no denying that sand has been vanishing both from East Beach and the west end of Horseneck with alarming speed since the causeway was built.
“There is good evidence that those beaches changed very little for the previous century and probably thousands of years,” he said. “Sand essentially moved back and forth, some years there was more sand one place, some years in other places but it was all fairly constant.
Since the causeway, however, the rate at which the beach has been washing away may have increased by a factor of five times in some areas, especially on the East Beach side.
Lately, he and Mr. Sprogis have been visiting the town’s Water Resources Management Committee with a PowerPoint presentation, urging members to take a closer look at the situation.
Bridge might be better
They say there is reason to suspect that removing the causeway, replacing it with a pile bridge, and letting tidal currents flow across as they used to might solve at least several problems that have vexed Westport for many decades.
“We believe that we may, very likely, realize three possible benefits if the causeway was replaced with a pile supported structure that would restore the natural flow of water and sand along our coastline. These potential benefits are:
• Improved tidal flushing of the Westport River;
• Reduced shoaling of the river and inlet channels;
• Reduced beach erosion and cobbling.”
“All we are asking is that we study the problem with eyes wide open,” Mr. Sullivan said. Such studies should involve hydraulic modeling of the river — with and without the causeway; a historic analysis of the coastline before and after the causeway with an emphasis on erosion; and a bathymetric study of the the inlet to see what changes occurred after the causeway was built.
To that end they’ve formed a group that also includes David Emilita and Claude Ledoux to seek support and funding for a study.
Others have been watching with interest.
While the Westport Watershed Alliance has not taken an official stand on the issue, Executive Director Matt Patrick agreed that the idea deserves study.
“Anytime man tries to control the coastline we are asking for trouble. When I was a selectman in Falmouth, we had some of the best coastal scientists in the world working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute provide us with a report on our coastline dynamics. They advised us not to restore groins or armoring because it would just starve other beaches of sand. They said it was better to take existing barriers down.”
He added that while one earlier study (1996 Aubrey Report) concluded that removing Gooseberry Neck would have little impact on beach scouring, “it was not a comprehensive study.”
Not studied yet is whether removing that causeway would improve flushing of the river. Mr. Sullivan, who often dives in the bay outside the river inlet and keeps close track of water clarity, thinks a barrier the size of Gooseberry Neck seriously disrupts the river’s historic flow pattern.
“If only a small portion of that (water) were to pass behind Gooseberry Island, between the island and Horseneck Beach, we believe this would sweep away a significant portion of the outgoing river tide that mostly piles up in front of Horseneck Beach. When the tide comes back in, more fresh sea water would be available to flow back into the river.”
Westport Water Resources Management Committee member Bill Burns said he too is intrigued about the prospects of replacing the causeway with some type of piled support structure. He said he remembers time spent on the Conservation Commission dealing with East Beach residents’ concerns with erosion and beach loss.
“On just a mild windy day the waves splash latterally over the causeway” Mr. Burns said, “which inhibits the natural flow and movement of sand.”
Long ago, Gooseberry was actually an island, linked to the mainland by a ‘tomolo’ — a spit over which water flowed except at low tide. In 1913, the state allowed boulders to be placed along the sand bar and the original causeway was built in 1922. The causeway was partially destroyed by the 1938 Hurricane but rebuilt by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1943 at a time when the military maintained a coastal defense spotting station on Gooseberry.
These days the seven-acre island, with its military ruin and spectacular views is a popular place. On a recent bitterly cold day there was a steady flow of cars out to Gooseberry Neck; over half a dozen were parked (some of them driven there by photographers on the lookout for snowy owls).
“Lots of people like to come out here year-round,” Mr. Sullivan said, and simply eliminating the causeway “probably would not be very well-received.” And he said he has no idea what a bridge, especially a thousand-footer, would cost except that it would surely be “mighty expensive.”
“But I think that’s getting way ahead of ourselves,” he added. “What we need to do first is study it and learn what this causeway is doing and what might happen if it was gone … Only then could we really begin to look at what to do next.”