WELLFLEET — It took a town-wide effort, a federal campaign, and 26 years, but the dredging of Wellfleet Harbor’s federal channel is set to begin on Oct. 1.
“It’s just incredibly exciting,” said Wellfleet Harbormaster Michael Flanagan. “It’ll be absolutely night and day.”
Like most waterways, Wellfleet Harbor is subject to sedimentation — the gradual buildup of sand, silt, and other debris at its bottom. The process is natural, but still inconvenient. And over the past two decades, it has grown so severe in Wellfleet Harbor that it borders on dangerous.
Dredging — the removal of sediment — is the standard solution. But the process comes with a hefty price tag, and is an issue especially complicated in Wellfleet, where a federal channel cuts through state and town-owned portions of the harbor.
Wellfleet’s ability to dredge its parts of the harbor (which happened last in 2001) depends on the accessibility of the federal channel. In order for the equipment the town needs to even enter its harbor, the federal channel needs to have been recently dredged. That’s why the town has spent years lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers to commit funding for the channel’s dredging.
In a 2015 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers’ New England District’s Navigation Section chief, the then-five town selectmen, the town administrator, Harry Terkanian, the chair of the marina advisory committee, Joseph Aberdale, and Harbormaster Flanagan wrote, “Maintenance dredging of Wellfleet Harbor cannot wait.”
Four years later came the news that the federal government would commit $5 million to dredging the channel, opening the door for the town to approve its own $7.5-million project upon the channel’s completion.
And now, the dredging campaign is coming to fruition. The digger itself — Woods I — arrived in the harbor Friday afternoon. More machinery is on its way, and Cashman Dredging, a Quincy-based company working with the Army Corps of Engineers, has set up trailer offices on the pier.
For the next two months or so, dredging will take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It will, said Dredging Project Task Force co-chair Christopher Allgeier, pose a “minor inconvenience” to boating access. But the benefits will be enormous.
Water levels have become so low that, as of now, at half-tide or lower, there is no emergency access to or from the marina. For Harbormaster Flanagan, whose area of responsibility includes all of Wellfleet Harbor and huge bayside swaths of the Outer Cape, that has posed an enormous problem.
“We had no legitimate ability to help any kind of vessel in distress for large periods of time,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to help them, day or night. It’s crazy to even think of that. It’s literally lifesaving.”
And concerns about the harbor’s sedimentation extend to more than just safety. Shellfishing, said Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta, is the town’s number-one year-round industry, with more than 15 percent of Wellfleet residents involved in it in some way.
But because of the enormous volume of silt and “black mayonnaise” — the muddy result of decaying organic material — in the harbor, Civetta said that, for the past few years, many shellfish farmers have been struggling.
“They’re finding that their gear is sinking into that type of mud, and that shellfishing areas are getting covered in it,” she said. “When we get that out of the channel, and start to have that material removed, we’ll have more productive shellfish beds and more productive farms. Shellfish will stop getting smothered by silt.”
And the dredging will offer economic benefit to more than just shellfishermen, said Flanagan.
“The project is going to fill this harbor,” he said. “We get a lot of transient dockers coming from other harbors all over, to eat and go shopping in town. We’ve had to turn tons of people away because of the depth problem. Now we won’t. It’ll be a huge boost for restaurants and the harbor, which, in turn, is the town and the townspeople.”
Dredging season lasts three months; the Army Corps of Engineers has an absolute cutoff date of Dec. 31. But they estimate that they’ll be done with the channel in just two months, meaning that Wellfleet will get the chance to do a month’s worth of dredging — likely from the transient dock to the field dock — earlier than expected. The town’s project will continue in the fall of 2021, then again in fall 2022.