Northeast
The dredge drag head of a suction dredge barge on the Vistula River, Warsaw, Poland (Wikipedia)

Sargent's view: Coastal communities fight for their lives

You could almost hear the sound of federal money being sucked toward the politically powerful city of New Orleans. Up to a quarter of the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget goes to shoring up the Mississippi in a normal year, billions more in the wake of one of their frequent hurricanes.

On July 12, 2019, Hurricane Barry was bearing down on Louisiana at the same time Massachusetts state Sen. Bruce Tarr was convening a mid-summer meeting of the Northeast Coastal Coalition in Essex.

You could almost hear the sound of federal money being sucked toward the politically powerful city of New Orleans. Up to a quarter of the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget goes to shoring up the Mississippi in a normal year, billions more in the wake of one of their frequent hurricanes.

It was a fitting soundtrack for the meeting held to see if it made sense for North Shore communities to purchase their own dredge to re-nourish beaches with sand and keep their rivers and channels navigable.

For the past 10 years local officials had learned how long and difficult it was to get the Corps of Engineers to do almost anything.

The writing was on the wall. The majority of state and federal money was going to go to large coastal cities that had made themselves too big and too powerful to fail, while smaller cities remained just the right size to fail. If they wanted to avoid such a fate, smaller communities would have to band together to do more of their own heavy lifting. It was to address this situation that Tarr had convened this meeting where the Woods Hole Group, a well-known environmental firm, would present its findings on the feasibility of North Shore communities purchasing their own dredge as Cape Cod communities had done so successfully 30 years before.

The first thing the coastal scientists had to do was to show that there was enough dredgeable material to make purchasing a dredge financially feasible. This was pretty easy to do. They used the Army Corps’ historic reports of dredging it had done in the North Shore’s federal channels since 1887. They discovered that 3.3 million cubic yards of sediment had been dredged which broke down to about 42,800 cubic yards per year – still short of the 57,200 cubic yards needed to make a purchase financially feasible.

That difference could be made up with material dredged from the 21 non-federal channels on the North Shore, all of which were filling in due to erosion and sea level rise. But there were no reliable records for such small historic dredging projects. The last time the Ipswich River had been dredged was 125 years ago. It was equally difficult to quantify the value of the sediments for rebuilding beaches also because of the lack of historical records. So when they finally tallied up the pros and cons it looked like the most cost-effective alternative was to not purchase a dredge, but to hire private contractors to do the work for them.

As a staunch proponent of the “Build it and they will come” school of thought I was disappointed with the finding. It would be preferable for communities to have more autonomy and control over their own futures. But it was important to finally have the data to show that purchasing a dredge might not be the best financial solution for the North Shore. After the meeting was over I asked one of the scientists the obvious question. If Cape Cod officials were in the room what would they say about their decision to purchase their own dredge 30 years ago? “On the whole they would say they had been very pleased with their decision,” he said.

So despite its somewhat negative findings, the study represented a huge step in the right direction. The group pointed out that the way forward was for North Shore communities to put together a steering committee to not only work with the Army Corps but to come up with their own long-term plans for dredging. Most importantly, the communities needed to hire private contractors to help with the permitting, dredging and the re-nouishment of beaches, some of which could even be done with Army Corps of Engineers money as was being contemplated in Marshfield.

It was clear that there was more than one way to skin a cat and smaller coastal communities had to explore each one if they wanted to survive the effects of our many storms. They may not be hurricanes but nor’easters cause just as much damage because they hang around through several tidal cycles, like an unwanted summer guest who simply won’t go away.

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, 20,000 Years on the Merrimack River is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org, and at www.ingramcontent.com.

See The Daily News of Newburyport article . . .