Boaters and town officials have been on pins and needles this week waiting to hear if the main channel into Popponesset Bay would be dredged.
As of The Mashpee Enterprise’s deadline, the dredge had yet to make it to Popponesset.
Because of a restriction on dredging starting Monday, April 1, to protect nesting piping plovers, the Barnstable County dredging operation has until Monday to get the job done.
The impacts of not dredging would be far-reaching: several larger boats within the bay will be trapped and not able to venture out into the ocean; the New Seabury Marina, which offers fuel and slip services, would lose a significant part of its revenue and be forced to lay off much of its staff; and town officials fear that the buildup of the sand could create unsafe conditions as boaters may run aground on the sand, either entering or exiting the bay.
The county’s dredge program has had several setbacks this year as its recently purchased addition to the fleet, the M/V Sand Shifter, has broken down numerous times. The county had planned to use the Shifter to free up the Popponesset Channel, but it is currently broken down in Chatham.
With the Shifter breaking down, the county switched course and the older dredge in its fleet, the Cod Fish, left its job in Falmouth earlier than expected on Wednesday. It was headed to Popponesset yesterday morning.
As of the Enterprise’s deadline, however, the over-20-year-old boat was forced to dock in Green Pond just outside Falmouth Heights because of heavy winds.
Still, officials are optimistic the dredge will get to Popponesset and get the job done.
“The dredge is finished up in Falmouth and is on its way to Popponesset,” Kenneth H. Bates said yesterday. Mr. Bates is chairman of Mashpee’s Waterways Commission. “All expectations are [that] the approach channel will be dredged over the weekend.”
National Weather Service is forecasting for winds up to 25 miles per hour out of the southwest today, up to 30 from the south on Saturday, March 30, and southwest up to 25 miles per hour Sunday.
The lack of dredging surfaced at the Mashpee Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday, March 25, when the board heard that there was a slight hope the channel would be dredged.
Mr. Bates reported that the town had taken all the right steps to have the channel dredged: permits were lined up, the town notified the county of the project, and the county informed the town that the work would be completed. Equipment, planning and doing the work are the county’s responsibility, Mr. Bates said.
The commission chairman said the county dredge program has been successful since going into effect in 1997.
Over the years, however, the county has taken on more dredging projects. This year’s technical problems have made even tighter the narrow window of time already circumscribed for dredging.
Mr. Bates told selectmen on Monday that he tried to connect with several other dredging contractors outside the county but has not found an available dredge. The county, he said, was working on getting a dredge to the area. Mr. Bates was also in negotiations with a company to get additional piping for pumping the sand onto Poppy Spit.
Mashpee Town Manager Rodney C. Collins said that he is frustrated with what he characterized as a lack of communication from the county. As early as February, he said, the county notified the town that the project would be completed.
“Why weren’t we notified before the 11th hour?” Mr. Collins asked.
No county representative was in attendance at the selectmen’s meeting to respond.
If the town had been notified earlier, Mr. Collins said, he could have taken action.
During the public comment period of the selectmen’s meeting, a number of residents cautioned the board and public what would happen if the channel were not dredged.
Brian Lewis of Daniel’s Island spoke on behalf of the New Seabury Marina. He said that 30 percent of the slipholders would not be able leave the bay. Additionally, several privately docked boats would not be able leave the bay either. Both issues, Mr. Lewis said, would result in a significant decrease in revenue for the marina, which would have to cut its workforce by 50 percent.
Timothy W. Leedham, owner of Bosun’s Marine, said he was astonished when he learned that the channel would not be dredged. He recently measured the depth of the channel and said that the water was only up to about his knees. Mr. Leedham said that hundreds of boats in the bay need some four feet of water and that boaters will be running aground at high speeds.
“This is a safety issue,” he said. “There are going to be accidents.”
Michael Oleksak, president of Save Popponesset Bay, urged the board to take every possible action to get the channel dredged.
Following Monday’s meeting, assistant county administrator Stephen Tebo provided an update to Barnstable County Commissioners and said that he tried to work with two subcontractors to complete the Mashpee dredging project, but neither could help.
“We’re going to do the best we can with what we have,” Mr. Tebo said at the meeting. “We’re up against the wall here.”
Mr. Tebo said that the Sand Shifter, is not working again. Both winches on the dredge are broken and it also has an hydraulic issue, he said.
As to why the dredge is currently in Chatham instead of Mashpee, Mr. Tebo said the Chatham project was a priority because it was a MassWorks project.
Wednesday’s discussion was left at that.
Neither Mr. Tebo nor county administrator John Yunits Jr. has responded to an inquiry.
Mashpee is not the only town to struggle with getting its channels dredged this winter and spring. Chatham officials fear that one of that town’s main channels may not be dredged by the April 1 deadline.
Ted Keon, director of the Chatham Coastal Resources Department, said the town has had no assurances from the county that the dredge would be fixed in time.
He said that if they manage to get the county dredge to the site in enough time, the work would be a reduction of what was originally planned. The town is hoping to dredge the mouth of Sage Harbor.
“This has been frustrating for every town,” Mr. Keon said. “This is a brand-new dredge that has not worked since day one.”
The company that built the Sand Shifter is Ellicott Dredges, out of Maryland. The company did not respond for comment.
The county has been in talks to purchase a third dredge. In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Yunits said that the county has taken on more and more projects since starting the program some 20 years ago. While weather and federal and state environmental protection regulations limit the amount of time to dredge, Mr. Yunits said that climate change has led to an increase in projects around the Cape.
The county program provides channel dredging and beach nourishment for towns across the Cape. The dredges remove sediment that has settled into boating channels and then recycles it back onto beaches around the Cape. Dredging becomes a regular event as sand and other debris naturally erode from beaches and the coastline and fill up boating channels.