Historically, the entrance to Chatham Harbor – and the infamous “Chatham Bar” that must be crossed to access the entrance – has shifted back and forth from relatively benign to downright dangerous. Right now it's in the dangerous phase, not atypical for the fall and winter months, although this iteration is more hazardous than usual due to numerous factors, including the channel pushing hard against the outer shore of South Beach. A series of winter storms has eroded South Beach significantly, leaving much of it barely above sea level, and creating what many see as the very real possibility that a new break could form in the barrier beach about a half mile south of Lighthouse Beach.
Should that happen, officials warn that the entrance channel – the original 1987 break in North Beach – is likely to deteriorate further. Theoretically, this could mean that the northern inlet, formed during the Patriot's Day storm in 2007, would become the system's dominant inlet and the main navigation channel into the harbor and the town's commercial fish pier. This would seem to be in keeping with the theories put forward by Dr. Graham Giese and others regarding the evolution of the town's barrier beach system, but as Giese and other scientists are quick to point out, there's no certainty here, and the devil is in the details. There could be periods when the harbor gets even more difficult to access, which would be bad news for the town's 120-boat commercial fishing fleet based at the pier.
While there is no move afoot to abandon the fish pier – as Harbormaster Stuart Smith pointed out, for more than 100 years there's always been a way in and out of Chatham Harbor – more than $6 million in improvements to the pier infrastructure are included in a five-year $13 million waterways capital plan. Careful consideration should be given to each of the fish pier projects. Some, such as the $2 million rebuild of the south jog bulkhead, need to be done to ensure the facility remains safe and viable. If conditions deteriorate and the need arises to shift the fleet to Stage Harbor, some of those projects could be delayed, and the funds shifted to improve infrastructure at town facilities in Stage Harbor. This is something officials have talked about for years, but it now appears the possibility is more than just theoretical.
Selectmen are considering seeking authorization for all $13 million waterways projects at the May annual town meeting. Having access to the funds, which would require borrowing approval by voters, would provide officials with the flexibility to shift money into projects that are suddenly a high priority – such as moving the fleet to Stage Harbor. “It could happen very fast,” Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson said of that possibility. Fortunately, last year the town had the foresight to purchase the Eldredge Trap Dock, which is adjacent to the town-owned Old Mill Boatyard facility in Stage Harbor, which is itself currently undergoing an upgrade. The five-year plan programs funds for upgrades to the Eldredge dock two years from now, but it may be needed sooner. While together the two properties would not provide the same capacity as the fish pier, along with Harwich's Saquatucket Harbor they could accommodate much of Chatham's commercial fleet. Selectmen should move forward with the omnibus waterways infrastructure funding article in May, a smart move to safeguard the future of the town's commercial fishing fleet.