Army Corps and CRMC proceeding with plan to dredge Winnapaug Pond

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Winnapaug Pond (Image: Mark12211 at English Wikipedia)

Posted October 15, 2019

WESTERLY — State and federal agencies are working together to formulate a plan to dredge a portion of Winnapaug Pond in order to restore ecosystems that have been negatively affected by sand and sediment entering the pond through the Weekapaug Breachway.

Winnapaug and four other coastal ponds in Rhode Island have breachways that were constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The Corps of Engineers is working with the state Coastal Resources Management Council on plans to remove material that has entered the pond through that opening.

"The most prevalent problem that has arisen with the permanent breachways is an increased rate of sedimentation in the ponds, mainly in the form of flood tidal shoals that continually expand and change shape as material from the beaches is carried into and deposited in the ponds," said Tim Dugan, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The expanding flood tidal shoals have resulted in the loss of valuable eelgrass beds and shellfish habitat, Dugan said

The Corps and the CRMC signed a project partnership agreement in July, Dugan said, and CRMC reaffirmed support for a restoration project that first started to take shape in 1998. The project had been put on hold since 2009 at the state agency's request after a restoration project at Ninigret Pond in Charlestown was completed.

"Following completion of the Ninigret Pond project the CRMC requested a hold on the design and construction of the Winnapaug Pond restoration project due to unforeseen fiscal changes in the state budget," Dugan said.

Under the agreement signed in July, CRMC will be responsible for a 35% share of the restoration project's cost, Dugan said. An update to a previous design for the project is expected to be done later this year or next year. More details about the project, such as the amount of material to be removed, will be available once the design update is complete, Dugan said.

In response to problems caused by the breachways, Congress in 1995, through a resolution adopted by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, authorized the Corps of Engineers to conduct a general investigation of the area from Watch Hill to Narragansett. A reconnaissance level investigation of the sedimentation in the ponds was completed in November 1997. It determined that there were several opportunities for aquatic habitat restoration within the designated study area, Dugan said.

CRMC entered into a feasibility cost sharing agreement with the Corps in May 1998. The state Department of Environmental Management and the towns of Charlestown, Westerly, and South Kingstown also contributed financially to the partnership. The purpose of the feasibility study was to determine the most technically and economically feasible; and socially, environmentally, and culturally acceptable project, if any, to restore aquatic habitat in the form of eelgrass beds, and fish and shellfish habitat in Ninigret, Winnapaug, and Quonochontaug ponds. The feasibility study also evaluated opportunities to improve anadromous fish passage at Cross Mills Pond in Charlestown, Dugan said.

In 2002, the Corps of Engineers recommended that the selected plans be implemented in accordance with the feasibility report recommendations. Collectively, the plans were to improve the aquatic habit of up to 57 acres of the shoaled-in salt ponds through selective dredging, planting of eelgrass, and establishing sedimentation basins to prevent future shoaling and subsequent loss of restored and existing eelgrass beds. The material to be dredged from the ponds consisted of fine sand that is suitable for placement along nearby beaches, Dugan said.

The Town of Westerly recently gave up on efforts to dredge 24,500 cubic yards of material from Winnapaug pond using a $2 million federal Natural Resources Conservation Service grant released as part of the federal government's response to Superstorm Sandy. The storm, which struck in 2012, is believed to have deposited sand from Misquamicut beaches into the pond.

A CRMC spokeswoman recently confirmed that the council could not issue a permit for the Superstorm Sandy project. Because the grant was made available in response to Superstorm Sandy, the conservation service stipulated that material dredged from the pond had to be the sand that was washed in by the storm, and that the sand had to be placed back onto the beaches.

"The project envisioned by the town was inconsistent with both the restrictions set forth in the original NRCS recovery grant, and state regulations for placement of material. NRCS funding was a result of mitigating for damages from Hurricane Sandy and was focused on recovery of the washover materials," said Laura Dwyer, the CRMC spokeswoman.

Fuss & O'Neil, a New England-based consulting environmental engineering firm hired by the town, took samples of the material to be dredged for placement on the beach.

"The samples showed none of the material was appropriate for that use," Dwyer said. "Additionally, the time constraints for using the NRCS funds were such that the project could not be completed prior to the expiration of the federal program."

Boaters and property owners near Winnapaug Pond have complained for years that it has become increasingly difficult to pass through parts of the pond in various watercraft.