Posted on April 11, 2022
WELLFLEET — A joint public hearing before the Truro and Wellfleet Conservation Commissions will be the last step of the permitting process for phase 1 of the massive Herring River Restoration project. The April 14 hearing will allow commission members to ask questions about the 193-page Notice of Intent filed by the town of Wellfleet and Cape Cod National Seashore in late March.
The Notice of Intent is filled with details about infrastructures proposed to be built, tidal measurements, and biological assessments of the wetland, waterways and uplands that are habitats for all manner of plants and animals. A few maps show what the project hopes to accomplish.
One rendering shows what the estuary will look like when phase 1 is complete. Herring River is shown as a thick blue river flowing under the Chequessett Neck Bridge as it makes its way up into Mill Creek, Lower Pole Dike Creek, Duck Harbor and fills out the mid and upper Herring River.
What are now hundreds of acres of degraded tidal salt marsh will be reclaimed, according to the Notice of Intent. A restored river will change the freshwater wetland with its invasive plants, back to salt-tolerant wetland habitats, the document claims. The project promises to turn the clock back 100 years so that tidal flows will reach deep into the estuary once again.
It is the largest wetland restoration project in the Northeastern U.S., according to Carole Ridley, project coordinator for the Herring River Project. When complete, it promises to restore 1,100 acres of tidal marsh. Phase 1 involves 570 acres, 12 of which are in Truro.
Eighty percent of restored tidal flow will occur on federal lands, even though most activities are taking place on Wellfleet land, according to a letter Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom submitted for the Notice of Intent. The federal agency is subject to permitting processes when anything involves a run-off of “pollutants,” which includes dredge material and sediment.
The project is being submitted to the commissions as an ecological restoration limited project, a provision within the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act. The commissions will determine if the project is in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements, Ridley said.
“In terms of advancing the interests of the Wetlands Protection Act, the project has, in its materials, demonstrated how it will accomplish those objectives,” she said. “We feel very confident about the quality of the application and the strong case it represents.”
Carlstrom agrees. The project will restore hundreds of acres of estuary in phase 1 and improve coastal resilience, he said.
“This is an opportunity to correct an impaired water quality resource for a previously very productive herring fishery, and expand the areas of wild oyster beds for the oyster fishery,” he said. “It checks a lot of boxes.”
The restoration also promises to generate an estimated $624 million in local and regional economic benefits over the life of the project based on economic studies of other coastal restoration projects, according to the Notice of Intent.
Martha Craig, executive director of Friends of the Herring River, said it’s unlikely the conservation commissions will deny the application. The project is being submitted to the commissions as an ecological restoration limited project, and a team has worked 10 years to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, she said.
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“It’s our job to show the application meets the performance standards of the Wetlands Protection Act,” Craig said.
She has worked on a number of restoration projects and calls this one the most studied, thought-out project she’s seen. It will have oversight from the Conservation Commissions, state and federal agencies, the Herring River Executive Council and Technical Team, a stakeholder’s group and potential funders.
She anticipates the hearing will be continued by both commissions. Either commission can deny or establish an order of conditions for the project. If that happens, the applicant (Wellfleet and Cape Cod National Seashore) can appeal to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The public hearing will be held virtually at 5 p.m. on April 14. Application materials and instructions for joining the hearing are posted on the two towns’ websites.