Posted June 13, 2019
Westbrook — When a town’s economy depends heavily on boating, dredging is a very big deal. On June 1, the Currituck, a special-purpose dredge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), received a warm welcome as it arrived in Westbrook Harbor to clear the channel and allow boats to move through efficiently and safely.
The Currituck, at 150 feet long and with a draft, when loaded, of 8 feet, can navigate rivers, making it the ideal vessel for a harbor at the confluence of the Menunketesuck and Patchogue rivers. That convergence of rivers at Long Island Sound makes the harbor prone to silt build-up, according to Josh Bagnati, dockmaster at Pilot’s Point Marina.
“It’s an uphill battle that we’re constantly fighting,” said Bagnati. “[Dredging is] incredibly important. If we didn’t do continuous maintenance, dredging both in the channel and in the marina, we wouldn’t be able to do business.
“These big sailboats we do a lot of work on—if the river’s not dredged, we’re not going to get the boats near enough to work on them, and it’s going to take jobs out the state,” he continued.
Pilot’s Point is providing the Currituck space to dock overnight, thereby saving the crew the time it would take to transport the vessel at the beginning and end of each work day.
The Currituck is a split-hull barge that allows the crew to fill up the hopper, move to the drop-off site, and open the hull and deposit the load. The sand is deposited just off shore at Hammonasset Beach State Park, where tides are expected to carry it inland.
The sand “stays in the littoral system so eventually it will...help nourish the beaches,” explained Coral Siligato, a project manager in ACE’s Navigation Section.
“In every area we go to, that’s what we try to do,” said Currituck Captain Raymond Bleam. “We look at the depths and try to get as close to the beach as physically possible. It depends on the slope.”
On-board equipment “tells you how much water is under the keel and we try to get about two foot under before it bottoms out,” Bream continued.
Without enough water underneath the hull, the ship will be damaged when the hopper is opened at the dumping site, “So we try to have a little water under us,” he said.
Beachgoers don’t need to fear that the spoils are contaminated, explained Siligato. Well before dredging, ACE conducts extensive environmental testing and coordinates with a slew of government agencies, including Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state marine fisheries, and the town. Westbrook Harbor Commission Chairman John Rie worked extensively with Siligato to make the dredging project happen, she explained.
The Currituck’s capacity is 315 cubic yards per load, although “[w]e don’t really fill up the hopper to capacity in each load; it depends on the material,” said Bleam. “Right now we’re getting about four loads a day. Our cycle’s about three hours between dredging and running to the dump and back.
“We have a crew of six men on board,” he continued, “a captain and a mate, engineer, assistant engineer, and two deck hands.”
The Importance of Clear Channels
Harry Ruppenicker, Jr. is the son of the owner of Harry’s Marine Repair, a 76-slip marina on the Patchogue River. He emphasized the impact the marina industry has on the economy of this small town. There are dozens of vendors, in Westbrook and surrounding towns, that boaters depend upon, he said.
“Our boaters use restaurants, stores, gas stations, and then also the marine-related businesses like sail lofts, fiberglass companies, and sign painters. The economic impact is really felt in the area.”
“People come to the marinas and spend money in town,” added Westbrook Selectman John Hall. “Not just that, but the marinas themselves and the taxes they pay: personal property and real estate taxes.”
The marine industry represents about 20 percent of Westbrook’s tax revenue, said Rie.
Dredging is a political hot potato, with New York and Connecticut battling over who gets to dump spoils in what locations. Westbrook’s harbor is a federal navigation channel, but that doesn’t mean the federal government has enough money to dredge all its waters. For years, Westbrook vied for federal funding; local officials credit U.S. Representative Joe Courtney for finding money to dredge what is arguably the state’s largest marina, with around 2,000 recreational vessels.
“The federal government doesn’t allocate enough money to dredge all the federal channels,” said Rie. “So there’s always a dogfight to get a harbor dredged. We’re very fortunate that the ACE has put aside a portion of its budget to do us every three years or so. And the first time was largely due to Congressman Courtney’s help.”
The issue is so important statewide that representatives from the Connecticut Harbor Management Association—a volunteer advocacy group of harbormasters from Greenwich to Stonington—made a trip to Westbrook to connect with local officials and see the Currituck in action.
“We have a similar project in Southport Harbor where there’s a sandbar that’s encroaching on our channel,” said Jim Harman, chairman of the Fairfield Harbor Management Commission. “So we are really interested in getting the Currituck to come.”
Siligato put the issue in perspective.
“I think we have about 170 or so federal navigation projects within the New England district,” she said. “So we can’t hit all those. [The Currituck is] usually here for about a month and maybe 10, 15 days at each location. So usually around three or four we can do per year. And we need federal funding.”