Federal legislators step up to solve dredge problems

Jan 24, 2024 | Plumbing the Depths

Delays in permitting have been costly for Cape towns and Barnstable County.

By Doreen Leggett

To help explain why dredging approvals can be arduous and lengthy, look at a partial list of agencies involved:

US Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, United States Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Zone Management, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife…

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Dredging projects require sign-off from all of those, and within each agency there often are approvals required from more than one division.

In the last 10 years the process has become even more difficult. The Barnstable County Dredge program has seen increased demand from 14 Cape towns (all but Brewster) with increasing hurdles. The program has operated in the red for the last few years and faces a $1.5-million shortfall, which Barnstable County has covered through its reserves.

With no relief in sight, the county and towns reached out to state and federal legislators for help. Last month, federal legislators convened a meeting with representatives from myriad permitting agencies and they packed into a room on a hill above the Barnstable Superior Court.

“What brings us here today is the challenge of the permitting process. The number of people here is pretty much evidence of the level of coordination that is challenging,” said Mark Forest, chair of the Barnstable County Commissioners and a Yarmouth selectman who asked for the meeting.

Forest was flanked by the meeting’s organizers, staff from Sen. Edward Markey’s office, as well as staff from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office and a contingent from Rep. William Keating’s office on Zoom.

Jim Cantwell, Markey’s state director, said failure is not an option, noting dredging is vital to port communities, the fishing industry, mariners and the Coast Guard.

“Defeat would come in the form of delays, missed opportunities for economic development, lost revenue (and) potentially unsafe, unnavigable channels,” Cantwell said.

The meeting’s purpose was to highlight bottlenecks and devise fixes, then follow up with agencies after the meeting.

Harbormasters from across the Cape and islands were on hand because municipalities are responsible for permitting.

As each agency representative spoke about their role, it was clear they had made changes to address problems towns have brought forward over the years.

The US Army Corps has added a project manager for the Cape as well as reorganized to try to make the process smoother. Both the EPA and DEP have added staff. New software is designed to kick back an application to the town if it is incomplete; town staff, or hired consultants, can resubmit quickly. Several federal and state regulators said applications can be incomplete and by the time that’s addressed it can be months later.

Daniel DeConto, chair of the county’s dredge advisory committee and natural resources director in Sandwich, laid out problems the county and towns are dealing with as well as potential solutions.

It is taking four or five years for towns to get 10-year comprehensive dredge permits – he asked it be reduced to two.  Since new requirements pop up unexpectedly he asked that each stage be clarified and codified. With the sheer volume of agencies involved, DeConto asked that contact information for relevant personnel be included. He also asked that agencies prioritize public over private projects, with the Cape reviewed as a unique region with a complete sample permit available for review. DeConto also asked regulators to create an online site where applications can be monitored.

Other suggestions included breaking off projects from larger permits, so they aren’t held “hostage,” and that projects under 2,500 cubic yards be exempt from review. There was also concern that when permitting projects is delayed, towns often have to pay to repeat required testing. Some utilities pay extra to make their projects a priority; there was discussion whether that could be done for the Cape.

Town officials reminded regulators that as problems continue, towns are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, the county dredge can’t do work needed, beach nourishment projects are delayed, and commerce and recreation that depends on ways to the sea are imperiled.

Legislators said they will stay engaged until problems are solved.

“We will commit to doing this (analysis) every year,” said Cantwell.

In mid-January, Ben Thomas, Markey’s district director, and Caleb White of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office, updated the dredge advisory committee and Program Director Ken Cirillo on progress to date.

Thomas said the Water Resources Development Act is being amended and Senators are looking to expedite the Cape’s dredging of federal channels. The legislators are also going to meet with leadership of the Army Corps, in part to re-instate a “joint review” process which town officials found helpful in troubleshooting problems.

“We know this is a real pickle and we just want to help,” said Thomas.


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