Climate change has intensified storms over the past decade, shifting coastal dynamics and accelerating erosion of the Outer Beach. This has driven more sediment into the Nauset Estuary, affecting access for fishermen and others. Orleans and Eastham, which share the estuary, have been debating what to do, and many people seem committed to dredging as the solution. But the dredging proposal is flawed.
First, dredging would not improve tidal flow or water quality, because the proposal stops before the inlet between Nauset Marsh and the Atlantic, and the inlet itself is shoaled: it is only two feet deep at a normal low tide, and zero feet at the new and full Moon.
Second, dredging would be a massive, expensive undertaking that would benefit very few people. It would cost at least $3 million for the initial dredging of over 150,000 cubic yards of sand and silt — the equivalent of a football field piled over 90 feet deep. This would be the biggest project the Barnstable County dredge has ever performed. Additional “maintenance” dredging would be required in the future.
Third, an alternative solution with no dredging was not evaluated early on, when its consideration might have prevented plans from evolving this far. When the “no dredge alternative” was finally considered in June 2021 at the request of Eastham stakeholders, it ranked first, ahead of the dredging alternatives, in the Woods Hole Group evaluation.
“No dredging” does not mean “no action.” It means taking action to serve commercial interests, including fishing, and address navigation and safety. Commercial interests are served equally well by dredging and not dredging, due to inherent limitations on use of the estuary. The number of boats is limited by the number of launching ramps, parking spaces, and moorings, factors independent of navigability.
The small commercial fishing fleet will have the same access to the ocean whether the estuary is dredged or not. Fewer than 10 owners now moor their boats closer to the inlet to avoid the shoaled channel. But this does not provide better ocean access: the inlet has more severe tidal restrictions than the channel. The no-dredge alternative could incorporate additional options, including use of a fueling and gear shuttle to reduce travel time and environmental risk and purchase of heavier mooring tackle.
Eastham has already taken significant steps to improve safety by providing a shallow-draft rescue craft for use in the estuary and a surf-launched rescue craft for the Atlantic side. These vessels can approach both sides of the inlet at low or high tide.
Of 34 boat-related safety incidents in or near the estuary since 2016, only one involved a serious medical event: a paddle boarder died at Nauset Light Beach in April 2019. In that incident, both towns’ rescue craft reached the estuary side of the inlet but could not pass due to low water. Eastham then acted by purchasing a surf launch craft. The town has further acted to promote safety in the estuary by establishing and enforcing no-wake zones within 150 feet of shore or non-motorized craft.
Why spend over $3 million and years of effort dredging, when the no-dredge alternative would achieve the project goals for a small fraction of this time and money?
The public will have additional opportunities to comment on the eight or more permit applications required as the project moves forward over the next few years.
Harrison Swift of Eastham is a consulting geologist and a member of the Nauset Estuary Stakeholder Group.