Annisquam dredging could move forward

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PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. A family takes a lunch break off of Wheeler's Point on a sandbar next to the Annisquam River. Local leaders have be working on a deal between the federal, state and city governments to have the river channel dredged.

Posted October 7, 2019

BOSTON — A long-awaited project to dredge the sand-clogged Annisquam River could be back on track, according to U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, citing a deal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will allow work to move forward.

Moulton said his office, working with state and local officials, has secured a waiver from the Army Corps and the federal Office of Management and Budget that will allow the project to move ahead with $2 million in recently allocated state funding to plug a gap between the estimated $6 million price tag and bids that came in much higher than expected.

“We’re finally going to be able to move ahead with the dredging of the Annisquam River,” Moulton told members of the Gloucester Daily Times and Salem News editorial boards on Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who also has been working on the agreement between the federal, state and city governments, cautioned that the ink isn’t dry on the deal yet.

“We are in the midst of piecing together a very complex arrangement where we can move forward with the project this fall,” Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said Tuesday. “We’re hoping that the Army Corps will accept funding from the city and state to be able to complete a scaled-back project.”

The project, which was initially supposed to get underway this week, calls for removing about 400,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from the river bottom to improve navigation.

The Annisquam River was last dredged in 1963, and Gloucester has been working for several years to win approval — and funding — from the Army Corps for a new dredging project.

Some sections of the river have become so shallow that emergency vessels can’t pass safely.

Jim Destino, Gloucester’s chief administrative officer, confirmed that state funds would be released for the project.

“We are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the next steps to move the project forward,” he said in a written statement on Tuesday. “We look forward to sharing more information in the coming days regarding this critical project.”

Destino said the City Council, which must sign off on the funding arrangement, is expected to take it up later this month.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ New England region didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.

The Army Corps allocated $5.4 million to pay for the bulk of the estimated $6 million project. The remainder was expected to be funded by the city.

But the only two bids for the work were more than double the amount estimated by the corps. Salem-based Burnham Associates bid more than $13 million for the project, and Connecticut-based Coastline Consulting offered to do the job for more than $11 million.

The project was scaled back to whittle down the lowest bid to about $9 million, but that still left city officials on the hook for an estimated $2.4 million.

Local officials, working with Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, were able to allocate a $2 million state grant for the project from the Baker administration which, along with additional federal funds, would be enough to get the project back on track.

But in order for state money to be used for a federal dredging project, the Army Corps would need to sign a memorandum of understanding with Gloucester officials to accept the funds.

The cumbersome process, which also requires congressional approval, could have delayed the work another 18 months.

“What the Army Corps had told us, as recently as two weeks ago, is that it would have been virtually impossible to do anytime in the next two years,” Moulton said. “We got them to waive that requirement so we can get it done.”

The project, if it gets underway soon, is expected to be completed by 2021.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at