CHATHAM — The dredging of a key Chatham Harbor access channel faced a number of obstacles, like obtaining emergency permits, addressing opposition from a neighbor, and tackling malfunctioning equipment. But in the end, the project was done in by early-season easterlies.
Persistent winds from the east have caused ocean swells to come through the North Inlet, exposing the county dredge to dangerous conditions, Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon told selectmen Monday. Last Thursday, after town officials met with the county dredge superintendent, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith announced that the project had been scrapped.
“It was a difficult decision,” Keon said. The town was seeking emergency permission to widen and deepen an access channel off North Beach Island in order to maintain access for the fishing fleet and for Coast Guard rescue boats.
The dredge is assisted by a small boat that moves the pipes that carry dredged sand, and the dredge superintendent said the crew of that boat, and the dredge itself, would be in danger working in ocean swells.
“We had a lot of wind in September, and it’s made the dredging there very, very difficult,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith said. The dredge is designed to operate, for the most part, in protected waterways, and working near the North Inlet would only have been possible if the prevailing southwest winds of summer had remained, he said.
“This time of year, it’s hard to get nice days,” Smith said.
While the new county dredge is larger than the old one, “when you put it next to the inlet in the ocean swell, that’s when things get dicey,” Keon said.
Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro noted that the purpose of the emergency dredging was to protect mariners’ safety, “and in the end, we had to defer the dredging because of issues of safety. I think it was the right thing to do,” he said.
The project was an uphill battle for the town, which had to obtain special state and federal permits, as well as permission from the conservation commission, to conduct the emergency dredging without going through the usual regulatory process. Facing legal threats from Minister’s Point property owner Gerald Milden, who claims his property is eroding because of previous dredging in Chatham Harbor, town officials secured the county dredge Codfish, and the new dredge, Sand Shifter, to carry out the work. Mechanical problems plagued the operation, causing a delayed start. Then the strong easterlies set in.
“That was really the last straw,” Keon said.
While the channel remains dangerously shallow and narrow, and while visibility is still poor for vessels navigating the passageway, at least the crush of boaters using the inlet has eased somewhat.
“The boating season, at least the recreational boating in particular, has really waned,” Keon said.
“The fishing season is beginning to wind down to some degree,” Smith added. Nothing has changed about the strong currents, shallow water and bad visibility at the site, however.
“Those still exist. It’s just that our boating public is waning,” he said.
“I’m not surprised at all at the decision,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. Inside the North Inlet, the waves roll in “like you’re out on the ocean.” It was a worthy attempt, but in the end, the benefits would have been limited.
“I think it’s going to fill in pretty quickly,” Dykens said.
“It’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances and timing,” board member Shareen Davis said. She asked whether the town will reassess the need for dredging in that area, which she said continues to be a dangerous spot for mariners.
Keon said town officials will be looking ahead at short-term and long-term dredging needs in the area, and he will be filing paperwork to make sure that the emergency dredging area will retain its permits into next year. The town will be looking at alternative places to dredge that might provide the needed access to the harbor, while offering a channel with more longevity.
“It is a very dynamic area,” Keon said.
The dredge is now on station at Fox Hill, removing sand that was hampering boaters’ access to Ryder’s Cove. That job is expected to take around two weeks, after which time the dredge will move to Round Cove to complete its work in Pleasant Bay. Those two jobs were scheduled to take place last year, but were postponed after the county dredge became iced in in Dennis.
The board voted to authorize the emergency dredging in August, but saw no need for another vote to cancel it.
“The consensus of the board is, you did the right thing,” Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro told Keon and Smith.