ORLEANS — It's been a long haul to get dredging Nauset Estuary on the public's radar, but now that the signal is strong some eager proponents are urging patience.
“I ask that people in this room open their hearts and their minds to the obvious challenges that are going to be ahead of us, to not lose patience with the amount of time it will take for the permit process,” fisherman and dredging advisory committee member Bill Amaru told about 100 people Feb. 7 at an Orleans Citizens Forum meeting.
Amaru was joined on a panel at the senior center by Selectman Mark Mathison, a longtime backer of dredging; Leslie Fields of Woods Hole Group, the town's consultant on the proposed project; and Barnstable County Administrator Jack Yunits, who spoke on the details of the county's dredging operations and costs. OCF Director Tom Hanrahan, who organized the event, said the Cape Cod National Seashore had been invited but could not attend.
“They wanted everyone here to know they are working with the two towns and with Leslie,” Hanrahan said.
“We have progressed slowly, but we have progressed,” Mathison said of the town's efforts, which have included scientific studies as well as consultations with Eastham and Seashore officials and with state and federal regulators.
Shoaling in the estuary has forced the fishing fleet to moor in the inlet behind the barrier beach rather than in more sheltered areas. “Imagine one of those boats going down with a load of diesel fuel or gasoline,” Mathison said. “It's the most dangerous place in the estuary to have boats moored and yet it's the only place the fleet can moor because there's no access to Priscilla Landing and Snow Shore and Town Cove.”
Mathison highlighted the impact on recreational boating as well, including safety. “If we do nothing, we can lose all that,” he said. “To me, doing nothing is not an option.”
He said he understands that people have concerns about dredging's effects on the environment. “Those are questions that need to be answered,” he said. “That's why the permitting process is so long, so arduous, so expensive. Without that process, nothing happens.”
Helping to answer those questions is Fields, who got involved when the town approved a feasibility study that was completed in January 2016. She sketched the scope of the project, which includes areas in Eastham and, principally, the National Seashore.
With the goal of improving navigation and public safety – not water quality, though some say a change in tidal flow would be beneficial – the project is a response to the needs of the commercial and recreational boating communities. In Orleans alone, Fields said, there are 13 town landings, 20 mooring areas (holding more than 300 vessels), two commercial marinas, a yacht club, and many private and association docks. With all this activity, public safety is a concern, but shoaling hampers prompt response to commercial and recreational boaters who run into trouble.
Fields walked the audience through the involved regulatory process, including further studies of alternative dredging scenarios, a look at shellfish resources, and the potential spread of red tide cysts from dredged sand in areas where it might be disposed. The town wants to use dredged sand to continue its efforts to protect Nauset Beach.
“The regulators said we had a lot more work to do,” Fields said. At a pre-application meeting in Lakeville attended by selectmen of both towns, the agencies “pretty much said they didn't perceive this as a situation in which they would grant emergency permits. That pretty much put that to rest.”
Someone in the audience actually said, “Oh, God,” when Fields put up a full slide with the local, regional, state, and national hurdles the project must clear. She said next steps include the Eastham and Orleans selectmen choosing a preferred alternative, a consultation regarding protection for endangered bird species, and an examination of essential fish habitat, among others.
“We hope to finish data collection and analysis by early June,” Fields said. Permitting “is expected to take about two years.” Work could begin in the winter of 2021-22 or “more likely” 2022-23.
Noting all the anchorages and boating activity in the area, Charlie Carlson of the dredging advisory committee asked Fields if Woods Hole Group had looked at dredging up to the Mill Pond. “We do have a contract with the town to look at that,” she said. “What we're seeing is that that's likely not going to be a recommendation. There are so many red tide cysts inside Mill Pond. We don't want to dredge the area where the rocks are at the entrance and make it lower because cysts would be able to get out of Mill Pond.”
The town's dredging advisory committee will be looking at Orleans acquiring its own machine for maintenance dredging. “It's an expensive proposition to the town to own and run a dredging department,” Yunits said, “(but) it's absolutely necessary to have a dredge available to your community.” That need has been filled over the last two decades by the county's dredge, the Codfish, which was recently joined by a second boat; a third is to be ordered as “the amount of work on Cape is indescribable,” according to Yunits.
“It probably costs $2.25 million to run a dredge program on an annual basis” he said. “It doesn't work for most of the towns; that's where the county fits in. Barnstable and Falmouth have a huge amount of dredging, (but) we still do their dredging.”
A dredge costs between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, Yunits said. Support boats are needed, which run into the tens of thousands, and then there's pipe to buy as well as anchors and markers for it. Next, “you need guys to run it,” Yunits said, adding that there's a very short dredging season, from Columbus Day to, in some year, Jan. 15. He said crew costs could run between $650,000 and $750,000 a year.
The county is adding a third dredge (its second is undergoing repairs) in part because so many town projects need to be done in that short window and also because a new state program is providing partial funding for harbor dredging that promotes economic stability and growth.
Winding up his remarks on dredging the estuary, Amaru said, “Please listen to the experts. Be patient. Go to the meetings. When it's time to vote, please be as generous as you have been with all the infrastructure improvements the town has seen in the last decades. Please don't abandon the industry.”
The Orleans Citizens Forum will host a session devoted to selected town meeting articles on April 25, and a candidates night is scheduled tentatively for May 9. To learn more, and to sign up for Stop the Bleed classes (summer sessions will be added shortly), go to orleanscitizensforum.org/