WELLFLEET — The Cape Cod National Seashore published a list of important events that took place at the Herring River beginning 15,000 years ago when the glacier formed that part of Wellfleet and Truro. Another milestone occurred on Aug. 17 when the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture awarded $27.2 million for the restoration of that once thriving estuary.
With the more than $22 million granted for the project by the state, the total amount now secured is nearly $50 million.
After 20 years of planning, the first phase of the largest salt marsh restoration in the Northeast is set to begin, likely by the end of the year.
“This is hugely significant,” said Carole Ridley, the project coordinator. “That is all the funding needed to do the Chequessett Neck water control access and sluice gates and other elements.”
On Aug. 23, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, and a host of other federal, state, and local officials gathered at the Chequessett Neck Road dike, where the most important element of the vast restoration will take place. It is here that the town and the state built a dike in 1909 for mosquito control, a plan that not only failed to reduce the mosquito population but destroyed a productive herring fishery and turned 890 acres of salt marsh into a mass of dead trees and invasive weeds, Ridley said.
The restoration of the Herring River will “correct a terrible mistake we made 113 years ago,” Warren said at the Wellfleet Public Library on Aug. 23.
“Today is a defining moment,” said Wellfleet Town Administrator Rich Waldo. “We can move from planning to implementation.”
Reconstruction of the 165-foot-long Chequessett Neck Road dike is the largest piece of the project. The opening of bids for that construction is scheduled for the middle of September, with groundbreaking set for the end of the year, Ridley said.
The restoration project has moved at a glacial pace, marked by eddies of controversy and the loss of the original president and founder of the Friends of Herring River, Don Palladino, who died in 2018.
“I’d love for Don Palladino to be here as well,” said Keating on Aug. 23.
Implementation will begin with building a temporary roadway over the river so that traffic can flow while the new bridge is constructed. Then the nine new sluice gates will be built beneath a new bridge. That part will take two years, Ridley said.
In 2025, the sluice gates will slowly open to increase tidal flow in the river. The Herring River Executive Council has adopted a plan for three years of restoration, which dictates that once the sluice gates are completed the water level will be allowed to rise gradually for one year from .4 feet at mean high tide to 1.8 feet. Then scientists will observe the changes in the surrounding marsh for two years while the water is kept at that level.
“It is very modest in order to monitor it,” Ridley said. “It will allow gathering of data to help inform the next tide policy.”
Ridley said the total construction cost is estimated at $62 million, including the bridge and other culverts and road elevations. Wellfleet secured $22,670,000 in May through the state’s Cape Cod Water Restoration Fund, and the Wellfleet Select Board accepted the $27.2 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture on Aug. 17. The project costs are based on design plans created in June, so they reflect current construction prices, Ridley said.
Some of the remaining $12 million is likely to be awarded to the Cape Cod National Seashore, which owns most of the 570 acres that will be restored during phase one of the project. The Seashore will pay for construction of the water control structure at Mill Creek by the Chequessett Club, a golf, tennis, and sailing club located next to the river, Ridley said.
The money from the state and federal grants will be used to pay $6.7 million to the golf club to elevate and rebuild holes 2, 3, 4, and 5. Currently, the golf course floods during rainstorms, and the flooding would worsen as the Herring River restoration progresses. The golf course will be closed for a year while that work takes place, from the fall of 2023 to the fall of 2024, said Barry McLaughlin, the club’s general manager.
The Herring River estuary stretches from the Chequessett Neck dike nearly to Route 6. The full restoration is expected to take 20 years. At some point during 2023, a team of laborers will begin to remove 45 acres of Phragmites and 42 acres of woody vegetation from the river basin, Ridley said. It will be mowed rather than killed with herbicides, she added. This vegetation is going to die anyway as the salinity of the water increases. But scientists want to remove it to avoid clogging the waterway, she said.
Over the next 10 years, 200 acres of wild cherry trees and other vegetation, most of which grew after 1909, must be removed. As the restoration progresses, laborers will scrape down a 1,000-foot stretch of High Toss Road to allow water to flow over it more freely. Meanwhile, the low-lying area by Duck Harbor beach will change from a freshwater to a saltwater marsh. Parts of Old County Road near the Truro town line will have to be elevated to prevent flooding.
The town of Wellfleet is the permit holder for the Herring River restoration, but this is a multi-partner project involving several state and federal agencies. On Aug. 17, Waldo said the $50 million is “a major milestone and represents a lot of effort by town staff, the Cape Cod National Seashore, and our local, state, and federal partners.”
Warren’s arrival in Wellfleet this week emphasized that point. “I’m here today to celebrate two things,” the senator and former U.S. presidential candidate said. “This extraordinary project moving into the implementation phase — it is not just a dream but a reality — and the partnerships that made it happen.”