More Equipment Problems Hinder Stage Harbor Dredge Project; Selectmen Sounding Alarm About Chatham Harbor Shoaling

By: Alan Pollock

The Barnstable County dredge off Fox Hill late last year. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Shoaling in Chatham Harbor continues to be a serious problem, with sand choking access to both the North and South Inlets. Now, mechanical problems with the new county dredge are threatening plans to dredge Stage Harbor and its approaches.

Town officials say that even if dredging is impossible, the Stage Harbor entrance channel will be navigable this summer, though the passage will be narrow. The Morris Island Cut, providing passage between Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor, still has significant shoaling.

Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said the town had hoped to have the county dredge Sand Shifter clear the entrance to Stage Harbor and also clear shallow areas in the Morris Island Cut, using the sand to nourish south-side beaches.

“A number of issues have come up,” he said. When sand is sent any distance, it requires the use of a booster pump, and the crane on the booster barge was not working properly, Keon said. That limitation meant that any recovered sand needed to be pumped to nearby Harding’s Beach rather than points further west; it also meant that any dredging of the Morris Island Cut would not be feasible. The dredge then set up to operate without the booster pump.

“When they literally were just about to start the work – everything was in position – both front winches became non-operational,” Keon said. These winches are attached to anchors and are used to pull the dredge forward and maneuver it from side to side.

The Sand Shifter, the county’s new dredge, has been plagued with problems since it was put in service last year. Factory representatives were expected to examine the dredge this week to help identify the problems, but if repairs can’t be made, “they do not believe that they will be able to operate in this fashion for this season,” Keon said. Facing an April 1 deadline, the county dredge crew recently removed pipes from parts of Harding's Beach used by nesting shorebirds.

“The winches are not a small issue, potentially,” Keon said. There was also concern that, without the booster pump, even the relatively short run of pipe might be too much for the dredge motors to handle.

Should the project be canceled, it would be unfortunate but not critical.

“Fortunately, from a strictly navigational perspective, there’s still good water,” Keon said.

Meanwhile, the board of selectmen Monday revisited the problem of shoaling in Chatham Harbor. Board member Jeffrey Dykens acknowledged that the town is ultimately at the mercy of nature when it comes to shoaling, “but I think we need to be as proactive as we possibly can to ensure that we have access to the North Atlantic from the fish pier side of Chatham,” he said.

There are a number of obstacles to any dredging of Chatham Harbor, not the least of which is a legal challenge by Minister’s Point property owner Gerald Milden. Dykens said the town should “aggressively pursue” using North Beach Island or Tern Island as disposal sites for sand, should dredging become possible.

Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he spoke with the superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore last summer about using North Beach Island as a disposal site, or even getting permission for a pipe to cross the island to dispose of the sand in the Atlantic east of the island. The superintendent didn’t say it would be impossible, but said it would take probably two years and a half million dollars to prepare the requisite environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act. Duncanson said Tern Island is the more promising prospect, since it is owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the addition of dredged sand would likely make the island better habitat for nesting terns and plovers.

Dykens also urged the town to have conversations with the U.S. Coast Guard and members of the congressional delegation about seeking permits, funding and other assistance for dredging. “If they can’t get in for half a tide, that’s not good. I believe they’re a natural ally in this effort,” he said. Duncanson said that the town has already begun those conversations.

“We are barking up every tree that we think may be viable,” he said.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said commercial fishermen can’t wait a year or two for some of these solutions to pan out.

“These guys have to survive this year and next year,” he said. “What is our fishing fleet going to do right now?”

“Fish the tide,” Selectman Shareen Davis said. “And it’s not economically viable.”

Commercial fishing boats can now pass through the shallow passage to the North Inlet only at high tide, so the fleet often leaves and returns en masse.

South Coastal Harbor Plan Committee Chairman Michael Westgate asked whether the town should issue a $1 million bond for use in a settlement of the legal action that is currently blocking dredging. If it saves a $30 million industry, it’s a reasonable investment, he said.

“No one person should have the right to hold up a whole community,” he said.

Selectmen voted unanimously to send letters to the Coast Guard, the congressional delegation and the Cape Cod National Seashore seeking their support.