Posted January 1, 2019
The long-delayed dredging of Wellfleet Harbor has once again been left out of the most recent Army Corps of Engineers operation and maintenance work plan, made public on Nov. 21 — leaving local officials little choice but to consider taking on the project at town expense.
“We were not included in the Army Corps plan for 2019,” Town Administrator Dan Hoort told the selectmen on Dec. 11. “This is the second year we really thought we had done everything we needed to do to be included.”
The 10-foot-deep and 125-foot-wide federal channel that provides access to the town marina from the open waters of Cape Cod Bay has not been dredged since 1995. It and the inner harbor are choked with “black mayonnaise,” the sludge that is smothering shellfish and making moorings at the marina unusable for four hours or more around low tide. The cost of dredging the channel and the anchorage at the town landing, which is the federal government’s responsibility, is estimated at $5 million.
The town and state would likely split the cost for dredging the south and north channels, some anchorage areas and the mooring field. But these phases of the work must wait until the federal channel has been cleared so the necessary equipment can gain access. The entire dredging project is expected to take three years and cost about $20 million.
Virtually everyone in Wellfleet agrees that the harbor is in desperate straits. The town’s aquaculture and tourism industries are both threatened by the sludge, with shellfish mortality on the rise, shellfishermen’s gear sinking in the gunk, and boaters shunning the marina because of the low-tide restrictions. It’s also a public safety issue, with emergency marine response crews unable to launch a boat for about eight hours a day.
The latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work plan lists 17 projects in Massachusetts, including five costing over $1 million, with the most expensive being $10.1 million for work at the Cape Cod Canal.
Townspeople have been aggressively lobbying legislators and federal officials about the urgent need for the dredging project to be funded, and many were convinced that this would be the year, based on their contacts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We really believe that the Massachusetts office of the Army Corps has us at the top of their list,” Hoort said on Monday. But the state-level priorities list goes first to the Corps’ regional office in New York, then to the national office in Washington and finally to the federal Office of Management and Budget. There’s no way to know at what stage Wellfleet got the axe, said Hoort.
“They don’t tell us,” he said. “It’s really difficult to deal with.”
Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Craig Martin said Tuesday that the earliest date for which the work might now be authorized would be the fall of 2020. He noted that Corps officials classify Wellfleet as a “low-use recreational harbor” and that a limited amount of federal funding is designated for dredging such locations. Those decisions, Martin said, are generally made at the Washington headquarters.
Martin said that all of the permits required for the project were in place “except for the water quality certification — and that’s a big one.” That permit application was submitted to the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection a year ago, he said. But he doubted that the lack of that one permit was a factor in the adverse funding decision.
As part of their effort to get the dredging funded, the Wellfleet selectmen hired a Washington lobbyist, Ray Bucheger, to exert additional influence on government officials. In a Nov. 26 memo to Hoort and Selectman Janet Reinhart, Bucheger wrote, “You obviously had strong local support, a supportive Corps District, a supportive Congressional delegation, and you were consistent in your advocacy. I admit that I am surprised by this result. While I pride myself on delivering for my clients, I have obviously not done that here.”
Bucheger wrote that he had spoken with a staff member of U.S. Sen. Ed Markey: “He said the senator is disappointed about the overall level of funding that Massachusetts received for fiscal year 2019. They did not say anything beyond that.”
Martin confirmed Tuesday that the New England district “received less than we generally do on average” in the latest round of Army Corps funding.
Bucheger, the lobbyist, also wrote that he planned to follow up with Army Corps of Engineers headquarters and the Office of Management and Budget to find out “where Wellfleet falls short.” Bucheger did not respond to phone calls from the Banner seeking further comment.
Hoort and some others suspected that Gov. Charlie Baker could have done more on Wellfleet’s behalf. “Gov. Baker did not agree to issue a letter of support,” Hoort said. “In this political environment we’re in right now it sure seems like that would have had an impact.”
The selectmen agreed last week to appoint a new harbor dredging committee that would investigate the possibility of having the town take on the work without the Army Corps.
“We’re going to continue to pursue having the federal government dredge the federal channel, which is their responsibility,” said Hoort. “But if they continue to delay we’re going to have to look at the possibility of doing it ourselves. We have to be prepared for that scenario.”