The glacial moraine left behind millennia ago underlies a fact of life for all of Cape Cod: we live on what is essentially a pile of gravel and sand. Given our endless exposure to the North Atlantic, that pile is constantly in flux, shifting with every storm and even every tide.
So much moving sand presents an ongoing challenge. Every Cape town except Brewster has commercial and recreational vessels dependent on access to the ocean, the bay, or the sound. Without continual dredging, those critical waterways become impassable.
This work, which happens mostly in the off-season, is largely unnoticed by most of us. But for those whose livelihoods and reasons for living here depend on it, dredging is fundamentally important. Open harbors and waterways have large economic multiplier effects. And 95 percent of the dredged material has been used over the years for much-needed beach nourishment.
For many years, most of this maintenance work was performed by our Cape Cod regional government, which contracts with the towns for dredging. The county government model is able to produce efficiencies of scale and substantial savings. In this case, county dredging costs about 25 percent of commercial rates, saving towns an estimated $6 million last year.
But escalating costs have provoked concern. Among the factors responsible is, of course, the price of fuel. Dredges are ungainly vessels — and we have two of them, the Sand Shifter and the Cod Fish II. Moving them around the Cape is slow and fuel-inefficient. Then there’s the cost of maintaining the equipment — diggers, pumps, and pipe — that excavates and transports large quantities of sand and rocks. Supply-chain issues have triggered the acquisition and storage of repair components that will be needed in the future because replacements for broken parts can take months to arrive.
Regulations to protect certain habitats and threatened species, such as winter flounder, have imposed stricter limits on the time of year when the dredges can operate. The Army Corps of Engineers is the primary permitting agency, and it moves very deliberately. The summer months are a precious time for water access, so work is limited then.
As in almost every field, staffing has become problematic. Our regional cost of living has resulted in chronically unfilled positions, and Covid has made scheduling a crapshoot. With crews of just three, the dredges are hamstrung when even one member is absent.
The consequence is that the dredging service, run since 1997 as an enterprise fund intended to be self-sustaining through user fees, has burned through its reserves and now requires a subsidy from the general fund. From my perspective, the service must be maintained. It has strong support from the county commissioners and the Assembly. The proposed equipment upgrades may make the service efficient enough to break even. Federal ARPA funds enabling these purchases will reduce delays, and a parallel concerted effort to streamline permitting is underway.
The good news is that the work will continue. Truro’s Pamet Harbor and its approach channel are on this year’s schedule, while the area between the wharves in Provincetown awaits permits. Around the Cape, Falmouth, Mashpee, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, and Chatham all have work planned for this season, to begin soon. For our Cape Cod “blue economy,” it is as vital as maintaining our roads.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].