WELLFLEET — Speakers lined up at microphones at the Council on Aging Monday to support the Herring River Project, which over 20 years could repair 570 acres of a salt marsh that was diked in 1909 for mosquito control and other purposes.
The project, the largest salt-marsh restoration in the state, has been discussed for decades and is now at the beginning of a two-year permitting process. But Monday night was a landmark moment — the first review of the project by the Cape Cod Commission (CCC) as a development of regional impact — and more than 100 people showed up.
“This is a river we have tried to kill for a hundred years,” said Gordon Peabody, an early proponent of the restoration. “We’ve forced it to breathe through a straw. It may only be a whisper at first, but it’s important to give it its voice back.”
At least a dozen representatives from various local, county, and statewide organizations spoke about the benefits expected from opening up the Chequessett Neck Road dike slowly to allow tidal water to flow in and out of the riverbed. The project will affect mostly Wellfleet and a small portion of Truro.
Those in support included state Rep. Sarah Peake, state Sen. Julian Cyr, the Chequessett Yacht & Country Club, the Wellfleet Historical Society & Museum, the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, the Wellfleet Open Space Committee, Wellfleet Conservation Commission, Massachusetts Audubon Society, and Supt. Gabrielle Sakolsky of the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project.
Sakolsky said her agency has been involved in other salt marsh restorations and she is confident that they rarely lead to an increase in mosquitos. That is because the predator fish that feed on mosquito larvae will no longer be blocked from swimming up the river to eat the larvae, said Project Manager Carole Ridley.
The CCC staff wrote a 24-page report on the project. Its conclusion stated, “Probable project benefits … include water quality improvements, protecting and enhancing harvestable shellfish resources, enhancing opportunities for recreation and tourism, combating climate change through carbon storage in a restored salt marsh, invasive plant/Phragmites management, and re-establishing natural control of nuisance mosquitoes.”
Cape Cod marshes have been filled, diked, and restricted all over the peninsula. Mark Robinson, of the Compact for Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, said he found 16 tidal restrictions along Truro’s Pamet River, including dikes, culverts, and roadways, “collectively creating an incredibly impaired system,” Robinson said.
Rarely is there a chance to reverse the damage, said John Idman, the commission’s chief regulatory officer. That chance exists with the Herring River because 95 percent of the estuary is in the Cape Cod National Seashore, he added, though restoration must be balanced with care to prevent property damage. He said his staff felt “comforted” by the adaptive management strategies, which means the Seashore staff will open the tidal gates gradually and curtail the flow if there are unforeseen problems.
It was these unforeseen consequences that troubled several speakers Monday, including Paul Faxon of Chequessett Knolls Drive. His well is a few feet from the high-water mark in phase one of the restoration. (Phase one comprises 570 acres. Phase two would require further permitting.)
Faxon said he would like some conditions imposed on the project in case of unforeseen impacts to property owners, such as salt intrusion into his well.
Martin Nieski, of Old Chequessett Neck Road, listed various scenarios involving the rising river by his home, including making his property unusable because it will be designated as a wetland. Ridley said none of those scenarios would happen in phase one.
Dr. Ronald Gabel said the 2005 Sesuit Creek restoration in Dennis resulted in ugly swaths of eroded mudflats without new growth of saltwater plants.
Stephen Spear, a neighbor of Sesuit Creek and a member of the Herring River Technical Committee, said other areas of the creek have recolonized with saltwater species. But he admitted the Sesuit project did not all work as planned. “We’ve learned a lot since 2005,” he said.
The next review by the CCC is on Thursday, April 2, at 4:30 p.m. in the East Wing Conference Room of the Barnstable County Complex, in the old jailhouse.