It's Sand Shifting Season: Dredging Underway At Two Locations

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Dredging

The hopper dredge Currituck maneuvers in the Stage Harbor entrance channel last Friday.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — Ambitious dredging operations, each with their own special challenges, are now underway at two key waterways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge Currituck is currently clearing the bottleneck in the Stage Harbor entrance channel, and about a mile-and-a-half away, a private dredge is clearing a channel to Outermost Harbor.

At Stage Harbor, crews are clearing away substantial shoaling at the harbor entrance, “and they have a substantial job ahead of them,” Chatham Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said. While the Currituck crew has encountered serious sand bars outside the harbor in the past, “they’ve admitted that this is the most challenging that they’ve seen in their time coming here,” he said.

At most tides, the water is so shallow in the middle of the channel that the dredge has difficulty operating. The shoaling is so severe that, as of early this week, it had completely immobilized one channel marker buoy such that the Coast Guard could not remove it prior to the dredging. Fighting strong currents in and out of the harbor, and coming from the Morris Island Cut to the east, the Currituck has had trouble dredging as it normally does, and may need to work from the edges of the channel where water is deeper. Dredge spoils are being deposited a short distance offshore, where it is hoped the sand will migrate to Nantucket Sound beaches to provide much-needed nourishment.

As always, there is concern that the channel they clear might be short-lived. With prime boating season still many months away, there is ample opportunity for coastal storms to undo the dredge’s progress, Keon said. The dredge crew planned to be working in Chatham for around three weeks.

“They are looking into what options, if any, there may be for supplemental funding to possibly come back in the spring or early summer. But they’ve made absolutely no promises to that effect,” he said. But it’s clear to the dredge crew that Stage Harbor is in need to extra attention, Keon added.

If no additional dredging happens, the Currituck’s crew will still leave the Stage Harbor channel in much better condition than they found it, though it’s impossible to say whether those benefits will remain when the first summertime boaters hit the water in June or July, Keon said.

While the clearing of the Stage Harbor channel is a public project, the dredging of Outermost Harbor is being funded entirely by Outermost Harbor Marine. Crews have been using an excavator and a front-end loader to pile up sand on Quitnesset Spit, which stretches from the harbor entrance south to Morris Island. A hydraulic dredge is expected to begin work this week clearing the channel and pumping the recovered sand to a location on the spit.

Outermost Harbor Marine Owner Harrison Kahn said the challenge is different than the one they faced last year, when sand was coming largely from the north, near Lighthouse Beach. That necessitated work on the north side of the spit, which was very challenging, he said. This year, sand is coming up from the south, thanks to the southward migration of the barrier beach inlet known as the Fools Cut. As a result, crews will be cutting back the northern tip of Quitnesset Spit and placing the sand further south.

An excavator piles sand on Quitnesset Spit between Morris Island and Outermost Harbor Monday.  A dredge was expected to begin work this week.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

An excavator piles sand on Quitnesset Spit between Morris Island and Outermost Harbor Monday.  A dredge was expected to begin work this week.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Last year, Outermost used its own light-duty hydraulic dredge to try and maintain its channel, but never succeeded in getting the channel deep enough or wide enough, Kahn said. The marina has now contracted with a heavy-duty dredge similar to the ones used by Barnstable County. “It pumps quite a bit of material,” he said, and can move sand a substantial distance down the beach. Kahn said he’s optimistic that the dredge will provide a channel that’s much more convenient and reliable for marina users this summer.

“We’re very hopeful for this year,” he said.

The dredging represents a “very significant investment” on the part of the business, including fees for lawyers and engineers, “and this is the second year in a row that we’re doing it,” Kahn said. Town officials have said that Outermost Harbor is an important public resource because it supports the Coast Guard, harbormaster and fire department boat operations, and is an important port for shellfishermen and recreational boaters. The dredge spoils are being placed on a spit that protects a vulnerable salt marsh that in turn protects the Morris Island causeway.

“The goal is to minimize the loss of the wetland,” which has been threatened by storms that wash over the spit, Keon said. “And if the entire system were to degrade, Morris Island Road has a potential to become impacted,” he said.

Because the dredging has public benefits, Kahn said he would welcome any move by the town to help them recover some of their costs, including allowing the sale of the dredged sand. The town sometimes allows private parties to offset the cost of public dredging projects by letting them purchase the dredge spoils to nourish private beaches, “and we’re basically asking for the same thing,” Kahn said. At issue is who actually owns the sand that the dredge recovers, he said.

Outermost has also paid a substantial fee to have its rented dredge trucked to town, he noted. If the town seeks to contract with that dredge to work elsewhere after it finishes work at Outermost Harbor, it would save on those transportation costs, Kahn said.

This week, the conservation commission was expected to discuss an apparent violation of conservation rules by heavy equipment crews working on Quitnesset Spit. Conservation Agent Cally Harper said she observed a truck and a loader that had been staged near a wetland, and saw that existing vegetation had been disturbed. The matter was on the agenda for this Wednesday’s meeting.