Army Corps will dredge Menemsha Channel

A map of the federal channel into Menemsha Pond shows the relative depth at mean low water. — Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Gro

Following an extended period of review and analysis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Monday it will move forward with a multi-million dollar plan to dredge the channel that leads from Vineyard Sound through the jetties at the entrance to Menemsha Harbor and on into Menemsha Pond, and repair both jetties.

The decision was good news for the town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

“I’m happy with this decision,” Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman told The Times Tuesday. “I think that the pond will benefit from it and the report from Woods Hole Group indicated the scallops will do well.”

Mr. Newman said rules, including a prohibition against overnight mooring,  are in place to protect the pond. “They just need to be enforced,” he said.

But not all of the pond’s main stakeholders are onboard with the project.

Chilmark has opposed dredging. Chilmark officials are worried about the effect on the scallop fishery and the potential for more and larger boats to use the federally designated channel to enter the pond. However, those town concerns were not enough to outweigh the Army Corps mandate to protect navigation through the federal channel.

In a statement to The Times Tuesday on the Army Corps decision, Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said, “I expect the Chilmark selectmen to request that the US Army Corps of Engineers hold a public hearing on Martha’s Vineyard to address potentially negative ecological consequences of the proposed dredging into Menemsha Pond.”

Harbor of refuge

In a letter dated April 7 emailed to all concerned parties, Ed O’Donnell, chief of the navigation section, Army Corps New England District, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “is authorized  to operate and maintain federal navigation projects (FNP) to protect the shoreline, reduce flood risk, ensure safety of navigation and promote local/regional commerce. The Menemsha Creek FNP was authorized by Congress in 1945 as a Harbor of Refuge for ships seeking protection from severe and inclement weather conditions. Since that time a number of dredging and jetty repair events have been completed in Menemsha Creek FNP in order to allow vessels safe passage.”

Mr. O’Donnell said that “Given the need to restore the FNP to its authorized dimensions after damages from Hurricane Sandy, the Corps will continue to move forward with planning and design of both the Menemsha FNP dredging and jetty repair projects,” he said.

In an email to The Times Tuesday, Army Corps project manager Craig Martin took note of Chilmark’s opposition. “Unfortunately with opposing views between the local stakeholders, any decision made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was going to disappoint one or more of the groups,” Mr. Martin said. “Our decision to move forward was based on the need to return the project to its authorized dimensions from apparent impacts caused by Hurricane Sandy in combination with significant prior shoaling.”

Referencing a study by the Woods Hole Group dated January 24, 2014, titled “Menemsha Pond System, Modeling and Risks to Resources” initiated by the Wampanoag Tribe, Mr. Martin said, the Corps’ planning process was put on hold several months while the study was completed.

“The results of these analyses showed that dredging would cause little to no change in the natural ecosystem processes,” he said. “The decision to move forward with dredging and jetty rehabilitation of the Menemsha Creek Federal Navigation Project is predicted to sustain the project in excess of two decades. The Corps’ efforts will allow those who use the waterway for their recreation, their livelihoods, and most of all their safety, passage for many years to come. I have great confidence the towns of Chilmark and Aquinnah will use their combined harbor management plan to balance the best use of the pond between natural resource and recreational activities. It is after all not the first time maintenance dredging and jetty repairs have been completed on the project.”

$2 million project

The Army Corps is authorized to dredge the channel, last dredged in the early 1970s, to a depth of eight feet at low mean tide and a width of 80 feet from between the jetties that protect the Menemsha Harbor entrance, past West Basin and the red nun, and past Long Point, known locally as Picnic Point, into Menemsha Pond.

The cost of the project, estimated at $2 million, would come from a $50 billion relief bill for areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

The Army Corps is planning a separate $1.5 million project to repair the jetties on either side of the channel.

The dredging project is expected to take about three months and could likely begin in October, depending on permitting and engineering timetables. The jetty project, which does not involve moving sediment, only rocks, would likely start in mid to late winter, 2015, and be completed in the spring.

Chilmark headaches

The Woods Hole study did little to assuage the concerns of Chilmark selectmen. In a unanimous vote on February 5, Chilmark selectmen approved a motion to oppose dredging the channel in its current location. Selectman questioned the location of the dredge project and the effect on boat traffic, suggesting it would increase pressure on the pond.

Harbormaster Dennis Jason outlined his objections in a letter to the state office of Coastal Zone Management. “My concern is that this project will create problems beyond our ability to regulate and cope with adequately,” Mr. Jason said. “The chances for examples of the law of unintended consequences accompanying this project are far too high for us to make any decisions without thorough review and scientific advice.”

Mr. Jason cited boaters attempting to moor overnight in violation of town regulations and increased use by a flotilla of recreational vessels from jet skis to yachts.

“The current shoal channel naturally restricts the size of the vessel and the use of the pond, limiting the pond to smaller vessels — mostly small sailboats and vessels with outboards, or the picnickers. The current use of the pond has a very low invasive impact on the pond and on the homeowners around the pond. Deepen the channel and you will increase the use by larger vessels; larger vessels equate to larger headaches.”

Pleased by decision

Bret Stearns, the Wampanoag Natural Resources department director and the pointman for the project, said he was pleased with the decision.

“Now that the decision has been made, it’s time to get to work,” Mr. Stearns said in an email to The Times Tuesday. “There has been great discussion in the papers and in meetings about all the things that could go wrong, but I have seen little effort to ensure  success. The natural resources department will be deploying additional shellfish propagation equipment this spring in an attempt to culture and capture more scallop spat than in years past. Department staff serve as both police officers and assistant shellfish constables for the Town of Aquinnah,  utilizing a marked Tribal vessel which is available to assist with harbor patrol should it be needed.”

Mr. Stearns said town bylaws could be strengthened and regulations reviewed to best protect the ponds. “Dredging of the channel and repair of the jetties on both the east and west side are large-scale projects in our community,” he said. “There are still decisions to be made in this process. We hope to regroup and move forward along with the two towns as partners.”