Posted on January 16, 2023
Plans to dredge Southport Harbor have resumed with the recent announcement that federal funding is available to remove sandy sediment building up on the eastern shore at the entrance to the harbor.
It comes after several years of the town and boaters raising concerns about boating safety due to how much the channel has shrunk.
“While the dredging planning and environmental approval process takes longer than all of us would like, the result will ultimately be a safe, navigable Southport Harbor achieved in an ecologically balanced manner,” First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said. “That’s something all of us will be able to enjoy whether we’re on the water or along the shoreline of this exquisite town treasure.”
More than 200 sail and power boats are docked, moored or stored in Southport Harbor with dozens of additional boats entering and exiting the harbor each week using the boat launch ramp at Ye Yacht Yard marina at the end of Harbor Road, according to the Fairfield Harbor Management Commission.
“We know unfortunately that many of these people have to be concerned about running aground in the harbor where at low tide the channel has narrowed from 100 feet to less than 50 feet and, in some places, only five feet of depth can be found,” said Kim Taylor, the commission’s chair.
But the channel may soon return to its original 100-foot width and nine-foot depth with the dredging expected to begin around January 2024, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the work, told town officials at a meeting in November.
“Dredging has been on the HMC’s agenda for at least seven years and probably since the town’s efforts to recover from superstorm Sandy in 2012,” said Don Hyman, a commissioner on the Fairfield Harbor Management Commission.
A lack of federal funds had delayed maintenance dredging at the harbor in recent years, but the Army Corps of Engineers told the commission in early January the project will get funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2022, according to a release from the commission.
The project is expected to cost more than $1 million, covered by federal funds, though the exact price is not available yet, Hyman said.
Another delay was that the Army Corps of Engineers’ hopper dredge, the dredging vessel needed for this project, is in high demand throughout the East Coast, said Bryan LeClerc, the Southport harbor master appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont.
“The dredging process is inherently complex and lengthy,” said Geoffrey Steadman, a consultant for the commission. “It includes many regulatory and funding hurdles and has been that way for years. We’re all committed to maintaining safe and efficient navigation and to do so in an environmentally sound way that will make use of the sandy dredged material for beneficial purposes.”
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is also involved and must review and approve the plans to manage the sand dredged from the harbor before it can proceed. The timeline for the final DEEP review is unknown, Taylor said.
The current plan is to place the dredged sand at a designated area offshore to improve shellfish habitat. It was created in consultation with the state Bureau of Aquaculture and Fairfield Shellfish Commission, Steadman said.
Fairfield faced backlash from the Ash Creek Conservation Association when it put the sand from the Fairfield Marina dredging on Jennings Beach instead of on the sand spit at Ash Creek. Fairfield, the group and Bridgeport have since come together to create a plan to protect the sand spit.
The Southport dredging has also posed an environmental concern.
Early in the planning process, there were concerns raised that the dredging would negatively impact the habitat for piping plovers, a protected species, that had been observed in small numbers on the sandy bank along the eastern side of the channel. The Connecticut Audubon Society conducted studies for the commission though and found that the piping plovers have not nested there for more than a decade and the habitat was not attractive for them.
Dredging is nothing new for Southport Harbor. The Army Corps of Engineers last did it in 2004-05. The Fairfield Department of Public Works later excavated sand from the shoal near the entrance in 2014-15, placing the sediment at the town beaches.
“Winds and tides have long deposited sand and sediment to the channel area, hampering both commercial and recreational navigation since the early 19th century and before,” Hyman said.
Records show that maintaining the harbor’s navigation channel has historically been difficult and a matter of community concern since the U.S. Congress authorized the jetty in 1829 to slow the westerly drift of sand into the commercially vital Southport Harbor shipping channel, according to the harbor management commission.
“According to an 1838 Army Corps of Engineers report, teams of oxen hauling road scrapers entered two-foot-deep harbor water at low tide to help keep the channel navigable for various size commercial vessels carrying cargoes of onions, other produce and manufactured goods to market,” the commission said in a news release.