Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Deirdre M. Mageean

Second Committee Member

Jonathan Rubin

Third Committee Member

Joseph T. Kelley


The history of coastal engineering projects is fraught with problems. In this thesis I examine the federal navigation project at Wells, Maine. In Wells, an incomplete understanding of the coastal setting led to a faulty engineering design responsible for a poorly functioning inlet and harbor and damage to neighboring beaches and wildlife habitat. Project planners and designers did not account for all unforeseen problems that arose. Reviewing the history of Wells Harbor demonstrates how proper attention to the natural setting, economics, and the political environment is essential to a successful project and enables agencies and stakeholders better to address contingencies when they arise. An embedded case study of the Wells Harbor Navigation project examines the project's different components separately and holistically. Additional embedded case studies were constructed for the Saco River Navigation Project in Saco, Maine, and the Cold Spring Inlet Navigation Project in Cape May, New Jersey. Cross-case analysis of the two Maine projects reinforces findings while differences observed with the New Jersey project offer robust results of interest to a wider range of coastal managers. Analysis of the natural setting at Wells Harbor reveals that engineering designs were based on misconceptions of coastal processes in the project areas. Subsequent design changes and mitigation efforts recycled the original flawed data, hence creating larger projects with larger problems. Economic analysis highlights a history of underestimated cost and over-estimated benefit projections at Wells. Traditional benefit-cost analyses did not account for all possible costs, or for uncertainty of benefits, and therefore poorly measured changes to social well-being. As a result, an economically marginal project was authorized. Once the project began and problems surfaced, federal economic guidelines and a lack of community and state resources limited the possible response options. A series of interviews and a review of the Wells Harbor Project history depict a contentious political environment. Special interests applied political pressure to get authorization of the marginal project. As problems arose during construction, relationships between local, state, and federal interests deteriorated, impeding consensus on a plan to address the community's problems. Cross-case analysis with both the Saco River Project and the Cold Spring Inlet Project support these findings. Results stress the importance of policy makers and coastal managers encouraging continued research on coastal settings to improve their understanding of local and regional coastal processes. These studies reveal the limitation of traditional benefit-cost analysis as a decision-making tool. Other economic models that incorporate the uncertainty of the setting and the value of non-market amenities are more appropriate for coastal projects. Sound partnerships between agencies, the participation of all stakeholders, and fbll disclosure of information is necessary for addressing problems when they arise and avoiding future complications.