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Wellfleet Board Delays Dredging for Another Year

The mooring field in Wellfleet Harbor.

Posted on April 9, 2024

The harbor mooring basin here was last dredged in 1957. The job, which has been on the town’s agenda for a decade, will now be delayed for yet another year — because the select board has decided not to ask town meeting voters for $4.48 million to pay for a permit.

The delay means that the town will likely lose a $2.5-million MassWorks grant awarded in 2022 when the dredging was originally set to start. The state had previously agreed to extend the deadline until this coming June 30. But it is unlikely to extend the grant for another year, said former dredging task force chair Chris Allgeier.

“I would be surprised if they even entertained a conversation about deferring it again,” Allgeier said. The town will most likely have to reapply for the grant, he said, but “the risk now is how many more grants will we get from the state?”

At its March 12 meeting, the select board agreed to scrap a warrant article authorizing payment of a $4.48-million fee imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to receive a dredging permit. The Corps maintains that dredging the 24-acre mooring field would disrupt fish habitat there.

The select board spent the last year working with the town’s dredging task force to develop a mitigation plan as an alternative to paying the permit fee. That plan involved dedicating 28 acres in Blackfish Creek to an oyster restoration project, but the board ultimately rejected the plan because of doubts about its viability. Last November, the board decided that the town should just pay the $4.48 million.

But scheduling issues and fear that the request for so much money would be turned down by voters have now led the select board to withdraw the request.

The board voted to move town meeting to May 20 after Town Administrator Rich Waldo and Assistant Town Administrator Silvio Genao both resigned and the board fell behind in preparing the warrant for an April town meeting. The new date meant that a ballot question seeking approval for a Proposition 2½ override for the dredging fee would have come before voters at the April 29 town election before they could debate the issue on town meeting floor. Select board members worried that would decrease the likelihood of the override’s approval, said vice chair John Wolf.

Select board chair Barbara Carboni said that the town will revisit the dredging fee request at a special town meeting in the fall. Between now and then, Carboni said, the town and the dredging task force “will be reviewing options.”

Allgeier had developed the mitigation plan with dredging task force member Curt Felix. They both resigned from the task force following the select board’s Aug. 22 vote to abandon the plan. The current task force, made up of chair Joe Aberdale, Chris Merl, and Alfred Picard, has not met since October, according to agendas posted on the town website.

Without a state grant, and with the effects of inflation, the cost of dredging the mooring field could rise to around $10 million, Allgeier said. The town currently has $2.9 million left in its funds for dredging, which means it would need about $7 million more to complete the project — in addition to the permit fee.

And the permit fee itself is set to increase this year, Allgeier said. Last October, a spokesperson for the Div. of Fish and Game, the agency that administers the fee through a state program, told the town that the agency is looking to increase its fee structure by 30 percent in 2024. That means the cost of the permit could balloon to $5.8 million.

“By kicking the warrant article to the fall, there is a greater likelihood that the fee will increase,” said Allgeier.

One Option: Do Nothing

If voters reject an override request this fall, then the town can either go back to developing a mitigation plan or continue putting the request on the ballot until it does pass, Allgeier said. “The other option,” he added, “is to do nothing.”

But doing nothing would mean that the 8 to 12 feet of black custard currently sitting in the mooring basin would continue to spill into adjacent shellfish beds and funnel into the federal channel, which the Army Corps spent $5 million to dredge in the project’s first phase in 2020.

The buildup of muck in the mooring basin has cost the town $80,000 a year from the loss of 270 moorings that cannot be accessed. Wolf, who runs a commercial charter from the harbor, said that the mooring field is inaccessible for two hours on either side of low tide.

In 2015, when the town was petitioning the Army Corps to commit funds to dredge the federal channel, town officials wrote that the “economic ripple effect” has meant “tens of millions of dollars in lost opportunities for local businesspeople.” Various businesses, including Bay Sails Marine, Wellfleet Marine Corp., and Billingsgate Charters, wrote supporting letters saying that revenue has decreased by over 50 percent in recent years.

The Shellfish Advisory Board also submitted a letter to the Corps, saying that the sediment “poses a risk to the overall health of our shellfish, specifically by the possibility of it sliding off the top of the current channel banks and smothering many of those oysters that have begun to establish themselves in Chipman’s Cove and Duck Creek.”

Shellfisherman William “Chopper” Young, whose aquaculture grant directly abuts the mooring field, said that the silt is knee-high in parts of his grant. “When it gets to that level, everything dies,” Young said. “Nothing can live in it.”

Is Another Way Possible?

At its March 21 meeting, the select board authorized Wolf to engage the town’s Congressional delegation to ask the Army Corps to remove the mitigation requirement altogether.

The Corps has argued that, because the mooring field has not been dredged in more than 50 years, it has become an essential habitat for marine and estuarine finfish and shellfish species. Invoking the Clean Water Act, the Corps said that dredging would result in adverse effects on aquatic resources of national importance, and the town would need to mitigate the effects either through a restoration project or through paying a fine.

But Wolf believes that the Army Corps’s determination that the mooring field is a productive habitat is wrong. Various studies conducted by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) and the town’s engineering firm for the project, GEI Consulting, back his claim, Wolf said.

GEI’s 2018 study concluded that “very few living organisms were found” in the basin, and that dredging would have “no permanent significant impact to essential fish habitat.”

A 2019 CCS study titled “Benthic Habitat Mapping in Wellfleet Harbor and Vicinity” found that 31 invertebrate species made up 95 percent of all individuals in the black custard. And a CCS study the subsequent year found that black custard is “low in species diversity” — roughly 90 percent of documented species were sea worms.

But the town’s previous attempts at persuading the Corps to lessen its demands failed. Those attempts included efforts by lobbyist Ray Bucheger of FBB Federal Relations with support from Rep. Bill Keating and senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. The Corps did not budge, however, and in 2021 the agency formally imposed the mitigation requirement.

Wolf said he believed the town’s failure to influence the Corps was because of a mix-up in communications. While Bucheger was lobbying the Congressional delegation, GEI had already started engaging with the Corps to develop a mitigation plan.

“We had two negotiations going on at the same time,” said Wolf. He added that the mix-up resulted in Bucheger severing ties with the town. “Now it is up to me to make a case.”

Allgeier said he is not optimistic about chances that the Corps will bend. “The discussion has been held many times with the Corps,” he said. “I consider it a long shot.”


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