New contractor to complete Menemsha Channel dredge project

H & L Dredging, of Bay Shores, N.Y., will begin work on Oct. 1.

Dredge spoils have been pumped through almost two miles of pipeline to nourish Lobsterville Beach. — Sam Moore

It appears the delay-plagued Menemsha Channel dredge project, one of the largest Martha’s Vineyard navigational projects in recent years, will finally be completed this fall.

The Army Corps of Engineers has announced a new contractor, New York–based H & L Dredging, will take over where Ohio-based contractor J-Way Southern left off last winter. The Army Corps terminated the contract with J-Way Southern in March of this year after the project was left unfinished by the Jan. 31 deadline, for the second year in a row.

H & L Dredging is expected to begin mobilizing in mid-September, and dredging is scheduled to start on Oct. 1. It’s estimated the job will take between four and five weeks to complete.

“We’re excited to have H & L complete the project,” Army Corps project manager Craig Martin told The Times. “It’s a firm we’ve had good success with in the past. They’ve done a lot of work in New England, and they’ve handled many projects that are similar in size and complexity to the Menemsha project.”

Mr. Martin said H & L will dredge up to 39,000 cubic yards of sand.

“Based on the post-dredge of the past season, the required amount was about 26,000 cubic yards. With overdepth they could get as much as 39,000 cubic yards of sand,” he said. “We’ll do a pre-dredge survey in September to nail down the final number. It’s a very dynamic waterway, and sand can accrete pretty fast. The rate can also be accelerated by the weather.”

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 dark lines show the area to be dredged in Menemsha Channel.

The work 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.

Menemsha Channel was first dredged by the Army Corps in 1950.

Benefits from the dredge project benefit are twofold — it removes sand that has accreted in Menemsha Channel since the ’70s, the last time the channel was dredged, and it uses that sand to nourish an eroding stretch of Lobsterville Beach, by pumping it over roughly two miles of pipeline.

“This is really high-quality sand,” Bret Stearns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) natural resources department, told The Times. “The core samples were fantastic, but it’s even better than we hoped.”

Mr. Sterns estimated the project has so far provided more than 15,000 cubic feet of high-quality sand for Lobsterville Beach, of which half, he estimated, has been lost to winter storms.


Fits and starts

There was an extended period of review, analysis, and inter-town squabbling well before the Army Corps announced it would move forward with the bedeviled project in April 2014.

Early on, the Army Corps sought to engage the main pond stakeholders, the towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). While the Army Corps did not require local approval to move forward, it generally prefers to do so.

Navigating the political waters proved tricky. The town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) both favored the dredging project as a way to improve the health of the pond by increasing water circulation, and to allow vessels access to Menemsha Pond.

Chilmark officials 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.

In a unanimous vote in February 2014, Chilmark selectmen approved a motion to oppose dredging the channel. Selectmen 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.”

However, Chilmark concerns were not enough to outweigh the Army Corps mandate to protect navigation through the federal channel.

Work was originally scheduled to begin in October 2014, but delays in securing state and federal permits pushed the project back to 2015. That September, Hurricane Joaquin delayed the J-Way Southern crew’s departure from a job in Georgia. Work on the pipeline from Menemsha Channel to Lobsterville Beach began in October. A total of 300 pipes had to be fused together. Dredging began in earnest on Jan. 2, 2016, but was halted by equipment failure.

The following year, the operation was also plagued by equipment delays. As it had last year, the project came to a grinding halt this year on Jan. 31, when the Army Corps of Engineers shut down the project in order to comply with the conditions of a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), which stipulated that work had to stop on Jan. 31 to allow for the migration of winter flounder. The original state permit deadline was Jan. 15, 2016, but both years the DEP extended it to Jan. 31.

Mr. Johnson previously told The Times that in both years, dredging work had been delayed until mid-October to accommodate the Striped Bass Derby. H & L Dredge, however, plans to commence operations on Oct. 1, a move that may usurp some of the precious few parking spots along Lobsterville Road during the Derby.

Aquinnah Police Chief Rhandi Belain told The Times that resident parking spaces along Lobsterville Road are not ticketed during the Derby. He said that the parking situation will be more closely evaluated in the coming weeks.