ORLEANS – The question remains as to if and how town officials can proceed with plans to dredge the Nauset Estuary, and select board members say they need more information in order to navigate a path forward.
Without the town of Eastham, whose select board voted last month to withdraw from a memorandum of understanding with Orleans to partner on the project, town officials are now left to consider a new scope of work for the project, plans for which date back to 2016. That could include a revised proposal for consideration at the annual town meeting in May.
"We need to repackage this, and we need to bring it back to the voters," said Select Board member Kevin Galligan.
Orleans has so far covered all of the costs related to securing permitting for the dredge, including the hiring of the Woods Hole Group as a project consultant. Work called for the estuary to be dredged from Town Cove out to the Nauset inlet, as well as additional channel dredging to Priscilla Landing and the entrance of Mill Pond. The later dredge work involves removal of red tide cysts, harmful algae blooms that are impacting the channel.
But Eastham officials said during a joint meeting of both town's select boards Dec. 13 that they did not see the cost benefit of doing the work, and that Eastham residents are not in support of the project. They also suggested that they would not support any dredge work in Eastham if Orleans officials opted to continue with the project without them.
Michael Herman of the Orleans Select Board supported creating a revised proposal for the dredge that would be limited to areas within town. He suggested that this would reduce the scope of work to just 20 percent of the original project proposal, an estimate that Leslie Fields of the Woods Hole Group agreed with.
"It does seem like the scope of work that voters voted on has changed drastically," he said.
Mark Mathison of the select board asked what powers Eastham might have to stop the project, even if it is limited to work in Orleans. Fields said it's unlikely that Eastham could legally fight any work in Orleans, but officials have the right to make public comment on the project and challenge it through the regulatory process if Orleans chooses to proceed with permitting. Some opposition is likely, she said.
"I feel there's a lot of really strong opinions in Eastham about this project," she said.
Fields said work done up to this point, including data collected on tidal currents and water quality, would still hold up if the select board opted to pause on pursuing permitting.
"We'd have to update some of that information but it certainly wouldn't be wasted," she said. "You have a great baseline of data that describes this estuary very well."
Town Administrator John Kelly reiterated that the scope of work would still need to be limited to improving boating safety and navigation. The Cape Cod National Seashore has jurisdiction over some areas of the proposed dredging area, and the agency said it would not support a project based on improving water quality.
Still, Orleans officials are interested in addressing issues with red tide cyst in the areas of Priscilla Landing and Mill Pond. One of the issues facing work in that area is how to dredge without redistributing the ride tide elsewhere, Fields said.
There is also a question of whether the channel leading into Mill Pond contains stones that are considered historic. If so, those stones cannot be moved as part of the dredging, according to Fields.
Some in attendance of the Jan. 5 meeting urged the select board to wait before taking any further action. Charlie Carlson, who chairs the Nauset Estuary Stakeholder Group, challenged the assertion by Eastham officials that residents at large are against the project. He said he expects a citizen petition article to be submitted at a future town meeting in Eastham showing support for the project.
"It seems to me premature to take action when the votes haven't been counted," he said.
Carlson also asked if the channel could be moved to be completely within the Orleans boundary. But Mathison said the border between Orleans and Eastham is defined by the channel.
Galligan also favored waiting for more information. Eastham is awaiting results from a study from the Centers for Coastal Study looking at both the configuration of the barrier beach in the project area and the overall ecosystem of the Nauset Marsh. There is also new data from the Woods Hole Group that has yet to be shared with the select board.
The select board has stated that the dredging is important to supporting the town's blue economy, and Select Board Chair Mefford Runyon reiterated that some method for determining the economic value of Town Cove and Rock Harbor should be explored.
Kelly suggested that the select board consider bringing a separate article to the annual town meeting seeking additional money to look at the economic value of the town's waterways.
"I think what we're talking about here is a separate study," he said.
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com