Estuary Towns Dig In To Find Common Ground On Dredging

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Mark Borrelli of the Center for Coastal Studies and Leslie Fields of Woods Hole Group viewed a presentation at last year's joint meeting of the Eastham and Orleans selectmen on dredging Nauset estuary. ED MARONEY PHOTO

Posted June 13, 2019

ORLEANS — Maybe this would be easier if Orleans had never split from Eastham in 1797. Instead, two boards of selectmen rather than one will meet again at the Eastham Public Library, on June 24 at 5:30 p.m., to try to find a way forward on dredging Nauset estuary.

The shoaled-up estuary is a hazard to recreational and commercial navigation, almost as problematic as two captains trying to steer the same ship.

Orleans, which has wanted to race ahead on permitting full-scale channel dredging from Town Cove to the ocean inlet, had recently trimmed its sails in response to Eastham's opposition to dredging behind the barrier beach. The Orleans selectmen asked Woods Hole Group scientist Leslie Fields to come back with a scaled-down proposal that would not include the final part of the passage out to the ocean, at least for now.

But at the board's June 5 meeting, the winds shifted once again.

“This doesn't get us to point A, the Atlantic,” Orleans Selectman Kevin Galligan said, “but maybe is faster for permitting.” “A little bit faster,” Fields said. “Maybe six months.”

“If we did this, and the process was done and we dredged, in what way would we be benefiting?” asked Orleans Selectman Mefford Runyon. “Improved navigation in those areas where we are dredging,” said Fields. “For the recreational and commercial boaters that use those parts of the estuary, that part would be improved.”

“In essence, it doesn't get us to the ocean,” said Selectmen Chairman Mark Mathison, “so why bother?”

Apologizing to Fields, Mathison said, “Every time you come down here it seems we're shifting around. It's fair to say when we started out looking at the project a lot of people were concerned or frightened by the overall size and scope and cost and length of time, so there was an attempt maybe to scale back and not deal with the National Seashore. But if we don't look at permitting the channel along the west side of the estuary between the barrier beach and the islands, we really don't gain anything with all the time, money, and effort put into dredging the inner parts of the estuary. If we don't have the channel clear for all boats to get from the Hole in the Wall north to the inlet, we've gained nothing.”

With Eastham Selectmen Chair Aimee Eckman and vice chair Alexander Cestaro in the audience, Galligan asked whether Orleans could proceed on two courses, seeking permits for both the scaled-back work and the full dredging to the inlet. “Say we did go with permitting and not say we'll do the work,” he proposed to them. “Would you oppose us if we filed for a permit?”

“We were unanimous in not supporting it behind the barrier beach,” Eckman said, “and town meeting also supported us, by a margin of about 80 percent.”

Mathison said Orleans had been responsive to a Center for Coastal Studies report commissioned by the Eastham board that raised concerns about dredging behind the barrier beach and depositing spoils under Nauset Heights. “We said we're not going to do that,” he said. Plans calls for dredging on the westernmost side of the channel, closer to the marsh and islands, and away from the barrier beach, and no use of the Nauset Heights location.

But Eckman said the report by coastal geologist Mark Borrelli advised that the area behind the barrier beach “can change at any moment... You can lay out (a channel) 100 feet off, and next week things might be different and you're right behind the barrier beach. It's so dynamic.” Borrelli was concerned as well, said Eckman, that dredging “too close to the marsh and islands might create more wave action that would damage the marsh... You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.” (Fields has said the proposed dredge zone behind the beach would not be fixed and could be adjusted as conditions require).

Eckman said boaters still have options. “At high tide, you can get through there,” she said. “Like Rock Harbor, it's not accessible 24/7. Nothing says it has to be a 24/7 channel.” Mathison had a different view. “When you're dealing with commercial fishing, safety issues, recreational boating, high tide only is not an option that leaves a lot of people comfortable,” he said.

The boards agreed to have another joint meeting. The suggestion that the towns' consultants get together before the meeting was criticized by Cestaro.

“That's a waste of time,” the Eastham selectman said. “The MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) process will figure this all out for us. Our intention in Eastham is to open lines of communication to expedite that process. It's been five years; we need to make positive movement. We need to focus on getting through the permit process just to figure out if we'll do this.”

Tying things up neatly, Fields said, “Before we file a permit, we have to know what we're permitting.” That discussion will continue June 24.