Towns Narrow Options For Nauset Estuary Dredging Project

The Barnstable County dredge off Fox Hill late last year. FILE PHOTO

Posted on March 27, 2019

EASTHAM — Before the scooping, there must be scoping.

The selectmen of Eastham and Orleans agreed March 25 that two potential plans for dredging Nauset Estuary have merit. One would dredge the system from Town Cove through the main channel and behind the barrier beach to Nauset Inlet with spurs to the Priscilla and Hemenway landings; the other would not include the spurs.

“The (first) provides the most use and is best in terms of navigation,” Woods Hole Group consultant Leslie Fields told the selectmen and members of the Orleans Dredge Advisory Committee at Eastham Public Library. “We can start with that, and if there are hurdles we can’t get over as a result of Priscilla’s, we can eliminate (that).”

Although Orleans has set aside funding for engineering studies that must be completed before the project is submitted to regulators for scoping what further information and studies will be required, Eastham has yet to do so. Its board has been waiting for a report by the Center for Coastal Studies that is due in April, prior to the town meeting that could authorize the expenditure but after the warrant is due to close.

“In order to move ahead,” Orleans Selectman Chairman Alan McClennen suggested to his Eastham counterparts, “you would have to decide to submit a warrant article with the projected cost, and in your minds subject ultimately to what you hear from the Center for Coastal Studies. When you hear, you decide whether to recommend the article… The critical thing is not to lose the year. You’ve got to have a warrant article in. Action is up to the voters in the end.”

Eastham Selectman Martin McDonald wrestled with that. “You have to know what the costs will be ultimately,” he said. “You’re not talking money for construction,” McClennen said. “You’re talking money for permitting.”

“We have to do something,” said Eastham Chairman Wallace Adams. “We can’t let this go on. It’s the voters’ decision whether we want to go forward. We can’t get there without doing the study first.” After the joint session, the Eastham board placed an article on the warrant for the town’s share of continued studies and permitting. A session with the Center for Coastal Studies will be held before town meeting.

The boards also had options to review for dewatering and disposal of dredged materials. The ones that “fell out highest in (our) analysis,” Fields said, were the area just north of the public beach at Nauset as well as two others. That area is attractive because it is not subject to overwash at this time and could be used as a dewatering basin. “Material could stay there until it was needed,” said Fields. “It’s central to the road so it could be trucked off.”

Other sites included the area directly behind the newly enhanced dune at Nauset Beach, which could conflict with parking, and Nauset Spit to the north, which is subject to overwash in parts and thus a target for protection as a nesting area for endangered species. Fields agreed to have further talks with agencies about the disposal sites.

“If the towns go forward with this venture, that huge amount of sand will be a resource for the towns, on our own beaches and to sell to other towns desperate for beach renourishment,” Orleans Selectman Mark Mathison said.

One disappointing bit of news was that this year’s window for a study of red tide cysts in the dredged materials has closed. Fields apologized, but suggested the study could be outlined in the Environmental Notification Form that agencies will use to scope the project. “That will let the regulators comment,” she said. “That’s the purpose of that document.”

Fields said she “felt encouraged” after the towns’ Jan. 11 pre-application meeting in Lakeville with state and federal authorities. “We introduced the project to the regulatory agencies,” she said. “They hadn’t heard about it. They identified some data gaps, and we were able to better understand their concerns.”

Among other gleanings, the towns learned that formal shellfish surveys will be required for portions of the estuary, that a “desktop” study of essential fish habitat will be needed, and that more data on impacts to the benthic (sea bottom) community, hydrodynamics, and marshes are required. Fields said improvement dredging is allowed in outstanding resource waters “if dredging helps to increase or enhance uses. In this case, there would be an increased use at public landings… the same with any commercial facilities in Town Cove. If there are enhanced or increased facilities as a result of dredging, it meets the intent of the regulations.”

Fast-tracking the project won’t fly, according to Fields, although it could proceed under a special review process. She said agencies made clear that “shoaling in the estuary from a regulatory point of view doesn’t justify emergency permits.” Later in the meeting, she described a kind of juggling act that would be required if such permits were granted.

“There’s a whole host of other problems if you even try the emergency permit route,” Fields said, “not least of which is, once you get the permit you have to do the work in 30 days. You guys have to have all your money lined up, all your permits lined up. It’s just not feasible.”

The boards discussed meeting jointly again to hear the report from the Center for Coastal Studies.