Posted on February 10, 2023
NEWBURYPORT — Last weekend’s arctic blast has delayed the dredging of Plum Island once again and a two-week extension may be needed to complete the project.
The $9 million federal project has the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working with New York-based H&L Contracting on removing 226,000 cubic yards of sand from the Newburyport and Salisbury sides of the Merrimack River.
The dredged sand would then be dumped along the beach off Plum Island’s Reservation Terrace, where homeowners have been frantically trying to keep the Atlantic Ocean from claiming their homes.
H&L Contracting completed the 9-foot dredge on the Newburyport side of the river in November and was preparing to suck up the 15-foot channel on the Salisbury side late last year.
But a winter storm washed up an approximately 22-inch-diameter pipe over Christmas weekend and the project has yet to consistently resume. That storm also seriously damaged a vacant home and left many concerned that another big storm could destroy the building at high tide.
The Salisbury dredging started Jan. 30 but a broken cutter head stopped work a day later.
Work appeared ready to resume Feb. 1 but Harbormaster Paul Hogg said the weekend’s subzero temperatures, coupled with high winds, kept the project on hold until this week.
“They had a lot of the ice get around that piping,” Hogg said. “I think some of it broke free and they’re trying to corral it back together and get it all squared away.”
The project’s 220-foot dredger, Oyster Bay, hasn’t moved since last week, according to Hogg, who earlier this week guided a tugboat that was breaking up ice at the mouth of the river.
“This work is all weather dependent and we had record-breaking cold over the weekend,” he said. “They picked the worst time to do this. They had a nice little break there and they decided to go someone else.
“But now, you’re dealing with the mouth of the Merrimack River with all the ice and the wind in February and March,” Hogg added. “That’s not a surprise to me, but it may to them.”
Safety is the top concern for the Oyster Bay’s crew, according to Hogg. He said the crew planned to begin work Monday but there was too much wind in the afternoon.
Hogg said most of the ice at the river’s mouth has been broken up and forecasts indicate better weather ahead, with mostly clear skies and temperatures above freezing for the rest of the week.
“We have a nice stretch of weather coming, and even the guys that are scalloping have been fishing the past couple of days,” the harbormaster said. “So they should be rolling along any day now. They have everything set up and in place, they just haven’t really gotten going. But once they get rolling, it should be good.”
At-large City Councilor Mark Wright, who lives on Reservation Terrace, said his neighborhood was able to weather the frigid weekend with little to no problems, thanks to the wind’s direction.
But Wright added that he and his neighbors are now in the “show me state of things” when it comes to the project.
“At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
Wright said he attended a Merrimack River Beach Alliance meeting Friday and heard that H&L Contracting has been asking the Army Corps of Engineers for a two-week extension if it is unable to meet its March 31 deadline.
“To my understanding, a high-capacity dredge like this can dredge 10,000 cubic yards of sand a day,” he said. “So they would need 19 uninterrupted days to get to their 15-foot depth in the channel. As we know, it’s unlikely in February and March to get 19 days in a row of good weather that is conductive to the dredge since two-thirds of it will occur in or outside the mouth of the river.
“A two-week extension would take us into middle of April,” he added. “But we have had nor’easters all the way through May. Anytime there is more than a 3-foot swell, they can’t operate in those conditions.”
The problems at Reservation Terrace, Wright said, were also caused by an Army Corps of Engineers project when the Plum Island breakwater was built without a spur about 10 years ago.
“We’re just anxious to get the temporary solution in place so that we can focus our attention on the permanent one,” Wright said.
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Newburyport for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.