Posted on September 27, 2016
By Ben Meiklejohn, Mainely Media LLC
Members of the Coastal Waters Commission expressed frustration that dredging of the Saco River has not made the list for funding from the Army Corps of Engineers in recent years. At the Sept. 13 meeting, members discussed options to getting the river dredged, including increasing advocacy efforts among federal officials, or even funding the dredge directly by pooling together with other communities with harbors that need dredging.
The Army Corps of Engineers proposed to U.S. Congress earlier this year that 150,000 cubic yards of sand be removed from approximately 77 acres of the river to restore the river to Federal Navigation Project standards in the channel of minus 8 feet mean lower low water levels, meaning the channel would be on average, eight feet deep at low tide. The proposal, expected to cost $3 million to $4 million, was submitted for the 2018 fiscal year.
Craig Martin, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers New England district, said the Corps won’t know if the Saco River dredge will be funded in 2018 until February 2017. Past proposals have not been funded by Congress.
Martin said Congress typically allocated $50 million a year for small harbor dredging projects, but, with approximately 1,000 projects across the nation looking for funding, the pool of available funding is too small to meet the need.
“(Congress) ranks the projects based on those ports that have a higher influx of commercial use,” Martin said.
For harbors that could potentially have more commercial activity if they were dredged, Martin said Congress doesn’t factor in the economic development potential when establishing port rankings, instead relying on existing commercial activity.
“It’s a catch-22. If you dredge it, they will come,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, they don’t factor that in the rankings.”
The Saco River was last dredged in 1992 and 1993, when 46,000 cubic yards of dredged sand from the river was placed on Camp Ellis Beach.
Ward 4 City Councilor Kevin Roche, who is the city council liaison to the commission, said other communities in Maine with dredging needs are “in the same boat.”
“I would say it doesn’t look good for federal money,” Roche said. “There was talk again of going at it aggressively to set up a system to do this ourselves or go for grants.”
Commissioner Carl Lagerstrom asked why the Saco River fails to get funding when other Maine communities have been funded in recent years.
“How does Pine Point get it? How does Wells get it? Where are our representatives?” Lagerstrom asked. “We’re right in between other harbors that are getting dredged. I just don’t understand. Royal River got done. Where does that leave Biddeford and Saco? That’s a federal harbor.
“I can’t even get up around Rumery’s Boat Yard at times, and I got a flatboard boat. I don’t get it. Somebody’s sleeping somewhere. Who do we have to talk to? … If we can’t get dredging done, we’re never going to get the jetty done.”
Roche said he has heard of plans from the University of New England to purchase a large research boat.
“They want a big boat down there, but they won’t be able to get in without a dredge,” Roche said.
“They could probably afford to (dredge) it themselves,” said James Katz, Coastal Waters Commission chairman. “It would only cost them a million, but the boat’s going to cost several million. We’d all benefit, but it would start at the number eight and number nine.”
Katz referred to the federal navigation aids numbered one to 33, which indicate the navigable channel of the river all the way to Cataract Dam.
“We had heard that (University of New England) was trying to add a 60-foot vessel for the marine science department,” Katz said.
“They would be able to actually do voyages. The problem is, because of the soot and sand in the Saco River, the water becomes very shallow there at low tide … That situation would severely limit their ability to come and go from the river as they wanted to, as it does everyone else as the situation gets worse and worse as time goes on.”
Katz said the vessel, which is speculated to hold 20 to 30 people, would likely be docked at Jordan Point, where the university would need to build a pier “large enough and strong enough to allow trucks to go down there and supply the boat.”
“But it gets very shallow there at low tide,” Katz said. “It’s got maybe five or six feet of water and that boat is going to take a lot more water than that.”
Katz said information about University of New England might only be “hearsay,” but the subject is being talked about “widely” by the Saco River maritime community.
Crystal Canney, the university’s director of communications could not confirm or deny any plans for a research vessel by the Courier’s deadline, but said, “The university has no need for a dredge.”
If the plans are true, Katz said, “I have no doubt they’d do a bang-up job. If it was necessary for them to do that, they could probably do it.”
Roche said it isn’t only the Saco River that didn’t get funding from Congress for 2017 projects.
“The whole northern New England didn’t get funded at all,” he said. “We didn’t lose out to other harbors (in the region).”
Roche said that until recently, Biddeford city staff have been doing most of the legwork in trying to get federal support for the dredge, and Saco needs to do the same. Katz said he believes city staff have prioritized less important issues, such as removing dams.
“The want to remove the dam over at Deering Lumber to allow the shad to come up the river,” Katz said. “Is it an emergency? I mean the shad has been struggling all along.”
“We got city officials making good money worrying about a dam for some shad and we’ve had this ongoing issue with the dredge. I’m all for the dam too, if that’s a good thing, but let’s take one thing at a time,” Lagerstrom said. “That river is such an asset for both communities.”
Katz said another challenge in getting the dredge done is that the longer the city waits to dredge the river, the more requirements there are that need to be met.
“Every time you go to do it, there are more regulations,” Katz said. “There’s a worm, or there’s a bird, or a bat that we need to consider.”
Roche said Biddeford and Saco have talked in the past about buying a commercial dredge, but the costs of maintaining it and staffing it would be great.
City Administrator Kevin Sutherland said the cost would be “millions.”
“We can’t put that on the back of taxpayers,” he said.
The next time the cities’ two councils meet jointly, Roche said he would like to discuss the possibility of eight or nine towns in the area pooling funds to pay a private company to do each community’s dredging projects.
In other business, the commission also approved a motion to collect bids on replacing video surveillance equipment at Camp Ellis. Katz said the equipment in use is 15 years old and doesn’t have as good definition as modern equipment.
Katz also raised concern about a proposed development project on Saco Island that would build 30 condominium units, each with two parking spaces, one of which would be in a garage. The project, being proposed by Bernie Saulnier, would also include adding another marina to the Saco River (See, “Plan for Saco Island marina in works” in this week’s Courier).
“There’s no way they can put anything in there without blocking the channel,” Lagerstrom said.
Commissioner Gary Marston expressed concern over the plan, which calls for as many as 69 slips at the marina.
“How many parking spaces for boat owners and friends of people in the slips?” he asked. “And then there’s lighting and how you get there.”
Marston suggested that as plans move forward to the planning board, the Coastal Waters Commission and planning board meet for a site visit, since the proposal is of interest to both bodies.
Marston said if the proposed marina were to complement other area businesses, it could work, but if the intention is to have gas refueling stations for boats, that would be an issue of concern for the commission.
“Having gas on the water is an issue,” he said. “I don’t think we want a gas tank on that island.”
Katz said he wants to have a discussion with the planning board without seeming like the commission is telling the board how to do its job, in regards to Saulnier’s marina and condominium proposal.
“We’re not telling them, ‘You have to do this.’ We’re telling them, ‘Have you thought of this?’” Katz said. “That’s all we’re saying. We’re the Coastal Waters Commission. When you put that stuff in the water, you’re impacting us. I don’t think we have to give them our approval, but we can tell them we have serious objections to what they’re doing.”
The commission unanimously approved sending a letter to the planning board outlining the commission’s concerns and interests regarding the development, which has not yet been submitted to the planning board.
Katz also raised the possibility of Biddeford and Saco merging their harbor commissions and sharing a harbormaster.
Biddeford Harbor Commission Chairman Sean Tarpey, who owns Rumery’s Boat Yard in Biddeford, was also present at the Saco meeting.
“It’s obviously something that’s going to happen at some point. I think it makes sense to start talking about it,” Tarpey said.
Tarpey said he doesn’t think it makes sense for a harbormaster to take care of all moorings, as is done in Biddeford.
“I’m a proponent of what you folks do in terms of having a protocol where the harbormaster and mooring installers have to be separate … I would have no interest in servicing moorings.”
Commissioner James Henderson said Saco’s policy is to have mooring owners responsible for resetting moorings, with the harbormaster only responsible for inspecting moorings.
“The harbormaster that we are talking about on our side has nothing to do with installing, only inspecting,” Henderson said.
Roche said the subject of a joint harbor commission will likely come up at the next meeting of the Biddeford and Saco city councils.
The two councils are meeting together on Sept. 30 to take a boat tour of Saco Bay, but no voting will be conducted.
The Shoreline Commission also discussed dredging of the Saco River at its Wednesday, Sept. 14 meeting. Roche said the Shoreline Commission, however, is primarily focused on getting the jetty fixed to prevent further erosion of Camp Ellis – another Army Corps of Engineers project for which the city has been trying for decades to obtain funding.