Army Corps plan to dredge Menemsha Channel hits a shoal

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

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is prepared to dredge the channel that leads from Vineyard Sound through the jetties at the entrance to Menemsha Harbor and on into Menemsha Pond. The trickier task is navigating the political waters that separate the main pond stakeholders, the towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

The tribe and Aquinnah support the project. Chilmark selectmen, worried about the effect on the scallop fishery and the potential for more and larger boats using the federally designated channel to enter the pond, do not.

Meeting Tuesday, Chilmark selectmen voted unanimously against the current Army Corps dredge plan, expressing concern that dredging would increase boat traffic in the pond.

On the same evening, Aquinnah selectmen enthusiastically endorsed the plan. Selectman Jim Newman described it as a “no brainer.” The federal government owns the channel that leads into Menemsha Pond, designated a federal harbor of refuge where boats may seek shelter in the event of a storm. While the Army Corps does not require local approval to move forward, it prefers it. Craig Martin, Army Corps of Engineers New England District project manager for Menemsha, said the Army Corp would be examining all of the data and a decision on whether to proceed is expected in the next few weeks.

$2 million project

The Army Corps is authorized to dredge the channel, last dredged in the early 70s, 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 Corp is planning a separate $1.5 million project to repair the jetties on either side of the channel. “They need repair and this is an opportunity to do that,” Mr. Martin said.

“The Corps makes no claim that all shoaling in the Menemsha Federal Navigation Project was the direct result of Hurricane Sandy,” Mr. Martin said in an email. “However, enough material shoaled in or was moved around by the storm to cause significant hazards to safety for vessels intending to use the project as it was authorized, a Harbor of Refuge.”

Mr. Martin said his agency has been waiting for some consensus on the part of the towns and tribe. “We, as the Corps recognize that the work needs to be completed,” Mr. Martin told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “It is a harbor of refuge, as it was designed. Boats can tuck in and get into the anchorage area but to get access to the pond, it is pretty shallow in most locations, so it is really not fulfilling its purpose, that is why we would like to dredge the channel.”

Mr. Martin said the Army Corps is aware that some people derive a livelihood from the pond and it does not want to upset the pond system which is why it seeks input from local residents.

Asked if the Army Corps could move ahead without unanimous local approval, Mr. Martin said that because it is federal property it does not even need to get local input but prefers to work with communities. “The point is we are not trying to roll in and say this is what we are going to do,” Mr. Martin said. “We are trying to get input from the town and the tribe.”

Mr. Martin said dredging is not expected to change the environment enough to impact shellfish, one way or the other, based on recent models. Mr. Martin said a decision must be made very soon, by the middle of the month. Consensus is not necessary but is preferred. “We don’t want to upset folks, but we are going to try and do the best for the largest number of people.”

If given the green light by the Corps, the dredging project would take about three months and could likely begin in October, depending on permitting and engineering timetables, Mr. Martin said. 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.

Study says little change

In an effort to provide more information about the effects of dredging that might lead to consensus, the tribe natural resources department  with support from the two towns contracted a study by the Woods Hole Group. Mitchell Buck, a coastal engineer, presented a report, dated January 24, 2014 titled, “Menemsha Pond System, Modeling and Risks to Resources.”

To address the concerns of Chilmarkers, the study examined the effects if the channel was dredged to a depth of six feet.

Mr. Buck identified the reasons for the dredging. These included severe shoaling and the need to maintain and improve flushing of the pond. Using advanced measuring techniques from boat and air, and data from a 2001 study and the Army Corps, Mr. Buck determined that dredging the channel to a depth of either six or eight feet would not significantly impact the overall hydrodynamics of the pond which flushes about every day and a half.

“The overall circulation patterns did not appear to change as well,” Mr. Buck told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday.

In response to a question from Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, a nonprofit organization supported by Island towns to propagate shellfish, Mr. Buck said the dredged channel would contain the higher current velocity and that would be beneficial to the scallop fishery.

“The shallow flats to the east of the existing federal channel (at the top of the pond) have extensive eelgrass beds, which provide natural substrate for the scallop spat to attach themselves,” he said in an email to all parties. “Since the velocities in this area are reduced, this would potentially give the scallop spat more time to affix themselves to the eelgrass instead of being blown through this area and exported to the [Vineyard] sound.”

If it ain’t broke

Tuesday night, Chilmark selectmen approved a motion to oppose dredging the channel in its current location. There was some discussion that relocating a new channel to the east of Edy’s Island would be preferred.

Selectman Jonathan Mayhew anchored his objections in history. “It was wrong in 1973 to dredge where they did and it makes no sense to do it again in the same place,” he said.

Referencing New Harbor on Block Island, he added, “It is very similar to Menemsha, was dredged and now there are 400 boats in there, bars and even a laundromat along its shores. I never want to see that here.”

Town moderator Everett Poole, a former fish dealer and selectman, joined the discussion that preceded the selectmen’s vote. “I’d hate to see Menemsha pond become a mooring facility,” Mr. Poole said. “The channel is in the wrong place to begin with and it will only fill the place with more yachts.”

Harbormaster Denis Jason cautioned against what he described as an inevitable increase in boat traffic. “Night time service calls to pull boaters off the shoal will increase,” he said. “Ensuring sealed heads in vessels and enforcement will require a lot more patrolling. The dredging will cause more grief in my personal opinion and a six-foot dredge will not last long.”

Shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer also opposes the project. “To act in the best interests of Chilmark as it relates to shellfish, I would recommend not to dredge the channel,” he said.

In 2013 Chilmark issued 185 shellfish permits including 11 commercial permits. In a telephone conversation with The Times, Mr. Scheffer said the town has recently experienced its best scallop harvests in decades and he sees no reason to risk that success for the negligible benefits outlined in the recent pond dredge study.

“Why would we change it if it’s not broken?” Mr. Scheffer asked. “As far as boat access, I’m not sure we have to take on the Army Corps and what they are willing to do as far as dredging the federal channel, to get what is best for both towns.”

Mr. Scheffer said the towns could fund their own dredge project to clear shoaling. “We can do what we want and its on our terms, not their terms,” he said.

Using emergency Sandy relief funds does not sit well when there is no Sandy related disaster in the pond, he added. “I kind of feel that those funds should go to people and communities who need it. Just because it is free to the taxpayers, the towns, does not mean it’s a good idea.”

It is broke

“I’m baffled by it, Brian ‘Chip’ Vanderhoop, Aquinnah shellfish constable and harbormaster, said about the Chilmark vote. “They said if it’s not broke don’t fix it, but it is broke.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said shoaling threatens the pond. Based on recent models presented by the Woods Hole Group, he said, there is no reason to think that dredging would have a detrimental effect. “I consider it preventive maintenance,” he said in a conversation with The Times on Wednesday.

Mr. Vanderhoop said the spit that juts into the pond at Picnic Point where the channel meets the pond is migrating. “Every year, that spit goes a little more to the east and gets a little bit shallower,” he said.

Mr. Vanderhoop said any decrease in flow would affect water quality in the far corners of the pond. “A chance like this comes along once in a lifetime,” he said. “When are you ever going to get the government to pay for anything? The permitting for something like this is unbelievable. If we tried to do this without being on a fast track it takes five to seven years, at least, to get the permitting over with.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said that existing joint regulations prohibit overnight anchorages in the pond. He said he is also concerned about the shellfish harvest and would not support the project if he thought there would be any harm. Aquinnah currently has 30 commercial shell fishermen working the pond.

“I’m disappointed it didn’t pass in Chilmark,” Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman told The Times in a telephone call Wednesday morning.

Mr. Newman said the project would benefit the health of the pond, and the dredge spoils could be used to nourish Menemsha Beach and Lobsterville Beach.

Tribe disappointment

Tobias Vanderhoop, Wampanoag tribal chairman, said echoed the tribe’s support for dredging. While he had expected Chilmark to support the project, he said he is encouraged that the tribe and towns have forged a process to work together on an issue of mutual concern.

“This is another example of how the tribe and each town cherish our waters and sustenance resources,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “The tribe will continue to support endeavors that promote ecosystem health and increased harvests.”

Regardless of Chilmark’s decision, Mr. Vanderhoop said, “We need to continue to work together for the good of our Island and all our people.”

Bret Stearns, the Wampanoag Natural Resources department director and the pointman for the project, said he was disappointed with the decision of the Chilmark selectmen.

“The technical information and experts furnished for this project agreed that there would be no detrimental impacts to shellfish within the pond, which was a primary concern of the tribe,” Mr. Stearns said. “I remain concerned with the real possibility of the channel becoming blocked, considering there is a mean low depth of only two and one half feet in one location  currently. My support for this project was not because there was funding available, it was because I firmly believe this is the right decision for the Menemsha Pond complex. It seem unlikely that a new channel, as proposed by the Chilmark selectmen would be approved considering it forges through an existing eelgrass meadow. It is likely the short-term remedy to both access and flow will derive from the local taxpayer. I view this as an opportunity lost.”