EASTHAM — A mixed bag of concerns about the proposed dredging of the Nauset Estuary emerged from the first citizens’ forums on the project held on June 22 and 29.
The towns of Orleans and Eastham, which share the estuary, are considering the removal of 155,560 cubic yards of material from 28,300 linear feet of channel to a depth of minus five feet at mean low water from Town Cove to the estuary inlet, including spur channels to Priscilla Landing and the entrance to Mill Pond in Orleans.
The dredged channels would be 50 feet wide, except for the channel behind the barrier beach, which would be 100 feet wide.
The inlet itself would not be dredged. This element of the plan led some at the June 22 forum to question how the project would achieve its stated goal of improving navigation and public safety.
“First responders can already reach the boaters in the estuary at any time,” said Eastham Select Board Vice Chair Aimee Eckman at that meeting. “The real problem is going through the inlet, which will not be affected by the dredge proposal.” Eckman noted that she was speaking for herself and not as a representative of the board.
Eckman said that, according to Eastham’s harbormaster, there is a sandbar across the inlet at astronomical low tides and only one or two feet of water in the inlet at normal low tides.
She said that Eastham was improving public safety in the estuary without dredging, by marking the channels behind the barrier beach, hiring additional personnel to patrol the marsh, purchasing several emergency response watercraft, and providing extra training to emergency personnel.
“Is there any evidence to suggest that dredging behind the barrier beach or anywhere in the estuary would make the inlet any safer or even passable at low tide?” Eckman asked.
“Because we’re not dredging to the inlet, no, it’s not going to make it easier to pass through,” acknowledged Leslie Fields, the project manager, who works for the Woods Hole Group. She added that, based on information from emergency responders, dredging would make it easier for them to respond more quickly to incidents behind the barrier beach and elsewhere in the estuary.
Orleans Harbormaster Nate Sears agreed with Fields.
“There’s a window where it’s low tide at the inlet that carries on through the estuary on both sides of the tide,” said Sears. “It shortens the amount of time that you can respond if you can’t get through some of that skinny water.”
Other residents were concerned about what could get into the estuary through the deeper dredged channels.
“We just saw seals for the first time last year in Mill Pond, and it was quite startling,” noted an Orleans homeowner. “You know, where there’s seals, there are sharks.”
Another Orleans resident asked what the economic benefit would be for the town. The project is estimated to cost approximately $3.1 million.
“The Eastham Select Board hasn’t seen that economic benefit, either,” said Art Autorino, chair of the board. “We would really like to see that defined as the project goes forward, as a justification to do it.”
The June 29 forum focused on the disposition of the dredged material and drew comments from Nauset Heights residents concerned about the proposed pumping of 26,080 cubic yards of material that could contain red tide cysts from the Priscilla and Mill Pond channels to a dewatering basin that will cover 6.8 acres of coastal dune north of Nauset Public Beach.
While a pilot project conducted for development of the proposal found that red tide cysts buried in a dune were not viable after six months, area residents questioned whether the cysts could pose a health hazard.
“I encourage you to understand the liability you’re creating if, god forbid, any of my family or the neighborhood gets sick,” said one Nauset Heights resident. “And what happens if you potentially sicken those beachgoers along the beach.”
Another Heights resident suggested a public health expert be consulted. “Is there an airborne risk?” he asked.
A sidecast dredge method is proposed for the 119,830 cubic yards of material behind the barrier beach and eastern main channel reaches. A hydraulic cutter suction sidecast dredge would create a sand-and-water slurry that would be broadcast 60 to 80 feet west of the channel.
The 9,660 cubic yards of material from the Town Cove and the central main channel reaches would be mechanically dredged to a barge and offloaded to trucks at the Goose Hummock Town Landing for transport to permitted sites in South Dennis.
Once the initial project is completed, maintenance dredging is expected to be needed every 10 to 15 years for the Town Cove and central main channel reaches, every year for the barrier beach and eastern main channel reaches, and every 8 to 10 years for the Priscilla Landing and Mill Pond channels.
The project’s Expanded Environmental Notification Form under the state’s Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) could be submitted for review as early as July 30, which would then open the MEPA comment period from Aug. 11 to 31.
Approval under MEPA is the first of at least eight permits required for the project to go forward.