ORLEANS – Town officials, a commercial fisherman and the owner of the Goose Hummock Shop traveled to Lakeville Jan. 11 to draw attention to the need for prompt action to dredge Nauset Estuary. A panel of state and federal regulators, some present by phone, listened attentively and asked thoughtful questions but offered little encouragement for relief anytime soon.
“This is an area where dredging hasn't been done (in some time),” said Jim Mahala, wetlands program chief for the southeast region of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “There seem to be a lot of bottlenecks. It's not just a limited shoal that's encroached into a channel... I haven't heard enough to justify an emergency authorization here. Normally, it's (for) minor dredging in critical locations where some shifting of sand occurred and is unexpectedly affecting navigation.”
Citing recent approval of a small emergency dredging project in Chatham, Orleans Selectman Mark Mathison said the “only difference between (the Chatham area) and Nauset Estuary is that we have a large area of sand, but it's doing the exact same thing as that small spot in Chatham. It closes off the harbor, makes it impossible for our fleet to come in and go out. We have a huge number of our fishermen mooring boats right inside the inlet – diesel fuel, gasoline, gear sitting in the most vulnerable part of the estuary. They can't get their boats back in the harbor. That's an emergency.”
The meeting at DEP's offices in Lakeville was suggested by Mathison, who urged that all the players come together to achieve a common understanding of the regulatory hurdles to be cleared in dredging the estuary. Friday's session was attended by four Orleans selectmen and two from Eastham, both communities' town administrators and several staff members as well as commercial fisherman Steve Smith and Goose Hummock owner Phil Howarth. Due to the partial government shutdown, the Cape Cod National Seashore, where 80 percent of the dredging work would take place, was not represented.
“Ten different agencies have a hand in this project,” Orleans Selectmen Chairman Alan McClennen said.
Smith laid out the challenges involved in reaching fishing boats moored behind the barrier beach rather than farther into the protected estuary. “Two years ago, we had boats coming from Town Cove,” he said. “Now the distance we're traveling is a mile and a quarter. Loading and unloading is taking a lot of time, a lot of fuel.”
Howarth said he's seen his “mooring business decline dramatically” in the last six years. “My clients can't get to and through the inlet. We're seeing more bigger boat customers move away to other harbors.” He said he'd invested $85,000 to $100,000 to construct safe fueling facilities but big boats “won't go there because their draft is too much” due to shoaling.
Leslie Fields of Woods Hole Group, the town's dredging consultant, walked the panel through studies done so far and presented four alternatives, including dredging a channel behind the barrier beach (Alternatives 1 and 2) or providing access to the inlet via Cable Creek (Alternative 3).
“Looking at the alternatives, wouldn't that point you in the direction of what you represented as Alternative 3?” asked Bob Boeri, project review and dredging coordinator for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. “(That's) such a large increase (in dredging) behind the barrier beach. It will keep filling in with the proposed sea level rise. It seems like the back channel through Cable Creek eventually will be the most ideal access point.”
Boeri, who said there was reason for concern about the impact on the back of the barrier beach “even from boat wakes,” urged consideration of the Cable Creek option “if you can avoid impacts to the salt marsh. There's more stability and sustainability in that area.” A channel behind the barrier beach would mean “you'd be dredging that thing constantly.”
Mahala wasn't encouraging about Cable Creek. “It would be difficult to do a legitimate dredge project” there due to its 50-foot width, he said. “I don't think Cable Creek becomes a main channel. I think you need to look at minimizing dredging to reduce volumes and vulnerability potential.”
Fields said the plan was not to maintain the full dredged channel but to clean up certain areas in the years leading up to the next anticipated barrier beach break, which many think may occur in the area of the inlet.
The regulators said they'd be looking for further details on factors such as eelgrass beds, shellfish habitat, protected species, disposal of dredged materials and water quality improvement (although Fields said the dredging “is not a project for water quality improvement”).
On Jan. 2, the Orleans selectmen appointed the members of the town's dredge advisory committee. They accepted the recommendations of, respectively, the conservation commission to name Ginny Farber, the shellfish and waterways advisory committee to name Bill Amaru, and the marine and freshwater quality advisory committee to name Betsy Furney.
For its own members, the selectmen chose commercial fisherman Steve Smith and Charles Carlson, a recreational boater and fisherman and member of the Orleans Conservation Trust. Shellfisherman Rick Francolini was named an alternate.
“Of all the things I know about dredging, I learned more of them from you than anybody else,” Selectman Mefford Runyon told Smith.