ORLEANS — Leslie Fields must have a great tennis game.
On June 1, the Woods Hole Group project manager for the proposed Nauset Estuary dredging project returned service and volleyed calmly with members of the Nauset Estuary Stakeholder Group. The shots coming her way during a two-hour workout ranged from easy lobs from some Orleans representatives to overhead smashes from some Eastham appointees.
The subject was a draft expanded environmental notification form for submission to regulatory agencies for preliminary review. It’s an opportunity for the regulators to make sure that the subsequent environmental impact statement answers all the relevant questions about dredging 155,560 cubic yards in the estuary to improve navigation and public safety.
Before the EENF is submitted, the general public will have an opportunity to comment and ask its own questions at an in-person public forum at Orleans Town Hall on June 22. The session will also be shown live on cable Channel 18, and questions will also be accepted from those unable to attend. A second public forum on June 29 is expected to focus on impacts of a dewatering area for dredge spoils that would be created north of the Nauset Public Beach in Orleans.
Eastham is protective of the barrier beach that guards the estuary and has concerns about the impact of dredging. Fields explained that there would actually be a 100-foot-wide no-dredge zone between the beach and the 100-foot channel to be dredged. She noted that a geomorphical history of the beach shows that it is not migrating westward into the estuary “the way many barrier beaches do… I think in part it’s because the current is pushing against the back of the beach and preventing it migrating to the west.” Eastham has commissioned the Center for Coastal Studies to look at the overall health of the estuary with special attention to potential risks of dredging to the barrier beach and salt marsh systems; that report is due in 2022.
Eastham representative Harry Swift, a vocal opponent of the project, objected to the EENF’s rating scale for judging dredging alternatives. Factors such as improving the channel to support boating businesses were ranked from 0 to 10, he said, while impacts on “eelgrass, shellfish, salt marshes, and intertidal areas all go from 0 to 5. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at that and estimate that this is skewed towards driving approval of dredging as an approved alternative… I certainly hope the boards would consider improving or increasing the weighting for environmental impacts to be the same as business, then let the chips fall where they may.”
Much time was spent on another justification for dredging, public safety. “How many incidents have you identified in that channel during the last five years?” Swift asked Fields, who said she hadn’t done that research but promised to contact the two towns’ officials for more data.
“I’m aware of two examples within the last couple of years,” chairman Charlie Carlson of Orleans said. “The town’s boats were trying to get out to the inlet to deal with people in distress and could not get through because of low tide, so the responders had to come from other harbors like Chatham. In one of those situations, an individual died who could not be reached.”
“That’s why Eastham has a boat that can be launched from Coast Guard Beach from the other side,” Swift said. “I think this is a matter that needs to be addressed very specifically and not blown out of proportion as a major safety issue.”
Dredging the channel through the estuary is about more than getting to the inlet, Carlson said. “If you’re a recreational boater running a power boat and you’re not familiar with these channels, it’s likely you’ll run aground with some frequency. The problem with that is that for people moving through the channel, hitting a shoal at any speed can be traumatic. Somebody can get ejected from a boat.”
Swift countered that “the current shoaling situation has a limitation to the speed at which people navigate that channel… If you dredge it and make it wider, people will be going faster. There are so many ways to mitigate this that are different from dredging it.”
“Nauset Estuary is the most dangerous estuary on the back side of Cape Cod,” Orleans representative Nate Sears said. “In the five years I’ve been harbormaster, we’ve plucked numerous boats out of that inlet. I understand that we’re not proposing to dredge the inlet. It’s that the window of time is reduced that we can (get out to the inlet) because of limitations on the inside.”
Tuesday’s meeting was attended by several scientists from the Cape Cod National Seashore. Fields will assemble her answers to their questions and those from the stakeholders group for posting before the June 22 public forum.