There is a gusher on Lobsterville Beach, and it’s spewing something more valuable than oil — pristine, fine-grained sand that’s been collecting in Menemsha Channel since the mid-1970s, the last time the channel that connects Menemsha Pond to Vineyard Sound was dredged.
The sand travels from the channel through a 2½-mile pipeline along the Aquinnah shoreline to the end, where a bulldozer operator from JWay Southern of Avon, Ohio, spreads it out to fortify a vanishing section of Lobsterville Beach. By the time the dredge project is completed, a quarter-mile of Lobsterville Beach will be widened by 30 feet.
“This is really high-quality sand,” Bret Stearns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) natural resources department, said as he watched the beach widen before his eyes. “The core samples were fantastic, but it’s even better than we hoped.”
The dredging will clear a swath in Menemsha Channel eight feet deep at low mean tide and 80 feet wide, from the jetties at Menemsha Harbor entrance, past West Basin and the red nun, past Long Point, known locally as Picnic Point, into Menemsha Pond.
The dredging is long overdue. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is funding the $2.2 million project from a $50 billion Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, determined the channel is a navigational hazard — parts of the channel shoaled to less than three feet. In 1945, the federal government designated Menemsha Pond a “harbor of refuge,” and boats must be able to seek shelter there in the event of a major storm.
Mr. Stearns said that this summer at a full-moon low tide, he stood in a channel that was supposed to be at least eight feet deep, and the water barely came up to his knees.
Originally, the Army Corps of Engineers plotted the pipeline to go completely underwater, from Menemsha Pond out past the west jetty, then hooking back to Lobsterville Beach. Mr. Stearns helped broker an agreement with the town of Aquinnah and the tribe that enabled dredge contractors to build a much shorter pipeline over town and tribal land — traversing Picnic Point, along the West Basin and over Lobsterville Road to Lobsterville Beach. The new path significantly reduced setup time and made the pipeline less susceptible to winter storms.
“Partly, the layout served as a safer alternative to vessels in the pond, but mostly we wanted the contractor to succeed,” Mr. Stearns wrote in an email to The Times on Tuesday.
Al Johnson, owner of JWay Southern, with 52 years of dredging experience, said he’s worked all over the country and all over the Caribbean, but his experience on the Vineyard stands out. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve worked on a lot of islands, but I have never met so many people that want to help as I have here,” he said. “It’s really been incredible.”
Mr. Johnson, 72, a soft-spoken bear of a man, said that from the time he came to the Island in July to calculate his bid, Ralph Packer, owner of R.M. Packer Co. of Vineyard Haven, has been his go-to man for information.
“I just called to ask him if he knew where I could get welding supplies, and he knew where to go for that, and probably 50 percent of the things I’ve needed so far,” he said.
To move a staggering amount of sand, Mr. Johnson had to move a staggering amount of equipment to the Island. A total of 30 tractor-trailers came over on SSA ferries, half of them laden with pipeline. Bulldozers came from the mainland on Mr. Packer’s barges.
“A big cost for us is fuel,” he said. “I was thinking since this is an island, we were going to get hammered, but Ralph gave us a fair price.” Mr. Johnson also thanked Marshall Carroll, owner of Menemsha Texaco, for letting him store fuel in tanks at the gas station, which saved the need for bringing a squadron of fuel trucks to the Island. He said Mr. Carroll also was integral in helping him find housing for his 19 men — no easy task on this Island. The crews will work in 12-hour shifts, around the clock, seven days a week, until the job is done.
“I’d like to think we give back to the local economy,” Mr. Johnson said. “I get everything I can from Island businesses, and my guys really love that food truck.”
Big dig, big delays
The Menemsha Channel dredge project was scheduled to begin in October 2014, but delays in securing the necessary state and federal permits pushed the project back one year. Early this October, Hurricane Joaquin delayed the JWay Southern crew’s departure from a job in Georgia. Then Island priorities added to the delay.
“When we got here, we were told that we couldn’t do any work until the Striped Bass Derby was done and the tribe signed off,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the annual five-week Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
Crews began laying the pipeline in late October. Some 300 pipeline joints had to be fused. Mr. Johnson estimated that a fast-working crew could do four connections a day.
Two 850-horsepower relay pumps, the size of UPS trucks, were prepped and put in place, and a spare stored at the Gay Head Lighthouse parking lot for backup.
Dredging began on Jan. 2. A few days later, the impeller, a key piece on the barge, seized and cracked, something Mr. Johnson had never seen happen before. Knowing the dredging permit expires on Jan. 31 to accommodate the winter flounder spawn, Mr. Johnson immediately got on a plane to get a new 36-inch cylinder, and headed back to Massachusetts, hoping to he could find a machinist who could bore the metal to highly specific measurements. Mr. Packer sent Mr. Johnson to Fairhaven Shipyard in New Bedford, a place where he often does business.
“I went there at seven am on Monday morning, thinking it’s going to take at least two days, probably more,” Mr. Johnson said. “But the guys dropped everything, and I was out of there at 10:30. I couldn’t believe it. They did a terrific job, too.”
Now, crews are dredging an average of 2,400 cubic yards of sand a day. Mr. Johnson said progress is better than expected because the sand is not as heavy as anticipated.
JWay Southern is contracted to dredge 41,000 cubic yards of sand. Mr. Johnson estimates that with a two-week extension of the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) Jan. 31 permit deadline, he could transport an additional 26,000 cubic yards of high-quality beach nourishment to Lobsterville Beach, and add an extra foot of depth to Menemsha Creek. “Getting the equipment in place is a huge part of the cost,” he said. “Once we’re rolling, we can move pretty quick.”
Asked about some of the most unusual objects he’s dredged up over the years, Mr. Johnson smiled. “We were dredging at the Norfolk Naval Base, and we pulled up a depth charge,” he said. “It was the same day the Vice President was coming to visit the base. The Navy got on it real quick.”
Mr. Stearns said that in addition to nourishing Lobsterville Beach, 3,000 cubic yards of high-quality sand from Menemsha Channel will eventually end up on Squibnocket Beach. The sand will be put in a temporary location and renourish Squibnocket Beach as necessary. The Army Corps signed off on the deal, but only after the 41,000-cubic-yard benchmark in Aquinnah was reached.
Mr. Stearns said the beach nourishment is already making a dramatic difference, and that a particularly vulnerable section of Lobsterville Road, “the bend,” is now protected by 30 additional feet of beach. To slow erosion, beach grass was planted on the beach last spring, and will be planted again this spring. A $670,000 grant to the tribe from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Grants Program will pay for the beach grass planting and several projects in Aquinnah, including a study to determine the long-term viability of Lobsterville Road, and for the dredging of Herring Creek, which allows herring to enter Squibnocket Pond and has not been dredged since 1938.