To the Editor:
I write in response to the Cricket's informative two-week series on "Shared Regional Dredging,” in particular with regard to the Essex River. The sum of the series’ reporting on Essex is that the Town's interest in dredging is for "coastal fortification in particular.” This is a bit of a headscratcher, since the emphasis over the past five or more years has been navigational access and safety, which must be balanced with protecting the Essex River, an amazingly productive ecosystem that has been designated by the State as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The Town has indeed been proactive with regard to the projected rising sea level, as one of the first in a National Science Foundation study on the subject. However, Essex is emphasizing resiliency, whereas fortification conjures a vision of hard infrastructure. Perhaps the Cricket is referring to the idea of "thin spreading" of the dredge spoils on the salt marsh, which public officials have presented as a way of 1) attempting to help the accretion of silt and raise the marsh’s level, and 2) saving money relative to other removal and disposal methods.
As you might guess, thin spreading is a controversial idea, and one conversation I had with a Massachusetts DEP subject matter expert resulted in this response: "that's NEVER gonna happen.” This is because previous attempts elsewhere have had ugly results. Picture the impact of heavy equipment on the mudflats and the low likelihood of getting an evenly thin layer by pumping tons of dredge spoils with industrial machinery.
The River was last dredged in the early 1990s, and the channel has silted in in some areas since. The most dramatic changes have been at and around the mouth, where severe winter storms have eroded Crane Beach and deposited a lot of sand in the basin between Conomo Point and “the backside.” Further upriver, the banks have been steadily eroding for many years, at least in part due to absorption of wake energy from passing boats. Long-time residents of Water Street have pictorial evidence of this damage and often yell at passing boaters to slow down. And of course, this ecosystem is also under threat from larger forces like invasive species and rising sea level.
The dredging project proposals I've seen are upriver, from Clamhouse Landing (at Cox Reservation) to the Causeway, where some of the most significant bank erosion is occurring. The downtown marinas have also silted in, and over the years their operators have inched out bit by bit with their floats, encroaching significantly on the Federal Channel, that is, the publicly owned waterway as defined by the Army Corps of Engineers. This taking of the public's property was solved by a coalition of state and local officials pleading with the Corps to redraw the Channel to accommodate the marinas, which — somewhat surprisingly — they did. The impetus for this dredging project is from the marinas and their boating customers, whose recreational power boats have grown in size and power in recent years, as elsewhere. These folks want the reconfigured channel and the mud bottom beneath their floats to be deepened, and the channel downriver dredged to accommodate boats in all tidal conditions. This advocacy is their right and seems reasonable on the face of it, and the marina owners freely admit that their own dredging costs would be lower by “piggybacking” onto a federal project.
However, boaters have always had to accommodate the tides, and occasionally run aground. The bottom is mostly soft and you get your boat off by waiting for the next tide or with the help of other boaters. The general rule of thumb with regard to low tides is, as Harold Burnham (who brings the biggest boats in and out of the River) has remarked: “You wait.” Another watchword in all tides and conditions: "situational awareness.” This quality was lacking when in July 2014 the passenger boat River Queen grounded near Clamshell Landing during an astronomical low tide. At this point, the Police Chief raised the dredging issue, stating that EPD boats couldn't get downriver in low water from the Town Landing. Many citizens then responded that the motions of moon and tides are predictable and that if the Chief was worried about downriver emergency access, then one of his boats should be at Conomo Point.
Now comes Woods Hole Consultants’ report, which states that the River is unsafe for navigation for three hours before and after each low tide, that is, for twelve hours every day. This is a real "stretcher,” as Huck Finn used to say, and is certainly news to anyone who boats in Essex. It takes the case for dredging to a new absurd low and raises the suspicion that an unbalanced view of all the issues is being advanced.
Cricket readers should be aware that there is significant opposition to dredging in Essex, some of it from local people who know the river best. The main point in opposition is that dredging doesn’t work for more than a few years and in fact actually causes the River to fill in more quickly. When the channel is dredged, the banks are steeper, more boats operate at higher speeds and the resulting wakes and turbulence cause the steeper banks to collapse. The collapsed bank material fills in the channel and you're right back where you started, except the river is in worse shape as a direct result. In addition, dumping of dredge spoils has significant environmental impact, no matter where it occurs, but is especially worrisome if deposited in the marsh itself.
Apparently, this project is far down the Army Corps’ priority list, and it may be many years before funding and project design come to fruition. However, the public must stay closely attuned, especially to the Corps’ environmental review process, and do everything possible to make sure that protection of the beautiful, bountiful Essex River is given first priority.