Hands Across the Estuary: Eastham, Orleans Find Common Ground

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Waterways , Dredging

An aerial view of Nauset Inlet, with Town Cove on the upper right and Nauset Beach in the upper left.  COURTESY PHOTO

ORLEANS They won't have a common plan when they meet with regulators to discuss dredging Nauset Estuary, but the selectmen of Eastham and Orleans will have a common purpose.

The boards came together at Eastham's library Nov. 26 to air concerns about the key resource they share, one that Orleans fisherman Bill Amaru called “the prime jewel of the Outer Cape.” But the estuary has lost its sparkle, shoaling up to the point that fishing boats can no longer navigate safely to familiar sheltered anchorages. Instead, they anchor at the end of the inlet nearest the ocean, a location that Orleans Selectman Mark Mathison said “makes it almost impossible for the commercial fleet to operate safely.”

Another facet of the jewel is recreational boating, and that, too, is suffering. “I've had a boat on that estuary since I got out of college in 1974,” Mathison said. “I have a 13-foot Whaler I can't take anywhere unless it's high tide in that estuary. What happens if you let that continue?”

Orleans and Eastham have been like two trains moving on parallel tracks, with the former under a full head of steam and the latter rolling forward at a slower pace. Faced with the loss of facilities at Nauset Beach, Orleans sees the potential of defending its shore with sand dredged from the estuary and is eager to seek permits for the work. Eastham is wary about accelerating things before it's known what sort of changes dredging might bring about in the ecosystem.

“A project like this shouldn't be moving fast-foward,” Eastham Selectman Jamie Rivers said. “We want to evaluate all the pieces, everything from opening up the waterway. More flooding? We don't know. Impacting the barrier dune, where this sand goes and how that migrates once relocated.”

At Monday's meeting, it appeared the two trains were headed for a single track in the same direction on one matter: a summit meeting with state and federal regulators in the next couple of months to clarify what's needed to secure dredging permits. That could be done, selectmen from both towns agreed, without presenting a specific dredging plan and timetable.

“What we've found in dealing with regulatory agencies is that they do encourage you to come in and talk early,” said Leslie Fields of Woods Hole Group, consultant to Orleans. “We would educate them on what we know about this site, then talk about the alternatives, and maybe more, and the 'do nothing' option. Then we could ask them for their feedback: where do you see problems? Are there data that are missing, or analyses?”

Eastham Selectman Aimee Eckman said her board's “biggest red light” regarding the summit was the intention to “accelerate emergency certifications.” Eastham “is all for sitting down and getting questions answered from regulators,” she said, “but accelerating the project, that's where we put on the brakes. That alarmed most of us on the board.”

Mark Borrelli of Provincetown's Center for Coastal Studies, which has been hired by the Eastham board to review the estuary dredging proposal, said the summit could proceed before his report is delivered in April. “I think it's a good idea,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, it saves you a lot of time. They want to streamline the process.”

As the boards agreed to schedule regular meetings about the estuary, it appeared one important partner was not in the room. Orleans officials said the Cape Cod National Seashore had confirmed that it would attend Monday's meeting, but no representative sat at the table with selectmen or spoke from the audience.

“There was some confusion regarding the selectmen's meeting,” Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said in a voice message reply to a call for comment Tuesday. “The Seashore is very interested in working with the towns to advance their needs. We look forward to engaging on that topic in the near future.”

At the Seashore's Nov. 14 public information session in Orleans on “Sharks, Seals, and Public Safety,” Orleans fisherman Steve Smith said shoaling in Nauset Estuary has made protecting the public a challenge by making it difficult for rescue boats to navigate. He called the Seashore “one of the biggest impediments” to dredging and cited “three examples that held up a permit:” a bed of mussels (“Mussels are sustainable everywhere”), eelgrass (“There wasn't any in the area”), and red tide (“Red tide does not exist in this area”).

“The process is complex,” Carlstrom replied at the meeting. “It's been seven years in the making. Each one of those situations you pointed out is a separate set of circumstances that are needed for providing adequate safety and access. We'll continue working with solutions that are palatable for the Seashore.”

During public comment after the boards' discussion on Monday, Amaru said that “there is no downside to the possibility of doing limited dredging... I spent my entire life on Nauset and in Chatham and have seen nothing but benefits from increased water flow. The additional oxygen will benefit Town Cove and Mill Pond. If we don't do it, the bottom, which is already suffering terribly, will simply get worse.”

Fisherman Jonathan Granlund, an Eastham resident who grew up in Orleans, introduced himself as the man who proposed, successfully, a town meeting article that set aside $100,000 for work on dredging. “My wish was to get you guys together to talk and lo and behold it came true,” he told the boards. “I see good has come out of this meeting... The town of Eastham allocated this money for permitting. Answering questions comes with permitting. The questions will be answered as we get things moving... Let's not drag our feet. You can't wait to buy the smoke alarms until you have fire insurance. You got to do two aspects at once.”