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Low Use Pilot Program Seeks Local Funding for Shallow Draft Federal Channels

The Corps of Engineers has embarked on a pilot project to aid local governments in maintaining federal channels not included in the federal budget. Funds allocated by Corps headquarters were made available in February of this year, and all seven projects are going forward.

The program has been in the planning stages since 2009, and Jim Walker of Corps headquarters presented the plan at the 2009 Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway meeting that year. George Nieves gave updates on the project at the 2010 and 2011 National Dredging Meetings.

In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, $1.4 million in funding was included on an Operation & Maintenance Remaining Item in the appropriations. The funding covers initial planning, surveys, geotechnical reports, permitting and pre-dredging services for shallow draft channels that are economically important locally but don’t meet the commerce and tonnage requirements needed to qualify for federal funding. The dredging itself is then expected to be funded by local governments.

Participating projects were selected from the Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay by the Corps districts based upon the needs of the project and the likelihood that local funding would be available to perform the dredging. Lack of funding at the local level hindered many communities from participating.

These are projects of local economic importance that were previously included in the federal budget through earmarks. When earmarks were forbidden by politicians, these small federal projects ceased to be funded by congress.

Some of the activities associated with the pilot were conducted starting in Fall 2010, with many now underway.

In the pilot projects are: Wethersfield Cove and Housatonic River, Connecticut; Chester River, Maryland; Horn Harbor and Queens Creek, Virginia; and the Beach Haven and Broad Thoroughfare Reaches of the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway.

Housatonic River and Wethersfield Cove, Connecticut

Ed O’Donnell, chief of the Navigation Section of the Corps New England District, told IDR: “In the New England District (NAE) we maintain 170 navigation projects in five states. The vast majority of those projects fall into the low use category. Out of the 170 projects, only eight projects move more than a million tons of commerce and 102 projects are considered shallow draft (14 feet or less).
“This means the recent cutbacks in funding for these type projects has certainly had a negative effect on our ability to maintain these projects. In the past we’ve been lucky enough that congress has realized the importance of these harbors to their Districts and has funded the work by adding funding to our budget.

“However, given the recent changes in Congress, this avenue too has been significantly diminished, if not all but eliminated. This is forcing the local communities to fund the work themselves, and, given the state of the economy lately, it’s been a struggle for them,” said O’Donnell. “One good thing here at NAE is that the State of Connecticut has realized the importance of these projects and has decided to work towards providing state bond funding to supplement the shortfall in federal funding,” he said.

The governor of Connecticut is fulfilling a campaign promise to fund the state’s waterways, and local sponsors of the pilot program are hopeful that state funding will be available for the dredging. He made a campaign promise to propose $50 million for port infrastructure and dredging, and has held to that promise, last year putting $26 million into the budget for that purpose. This year a proposed $25 million budget item is still intact but is held up while other state budget concerns are ironed out.

Geoff Stedman is a consultant for the City of Stratford, Connecticut Waterfront and Water Management Commission, which oversees the city’s Housatonic River waterfront, safe navigation and maintenance dredging of the river, which feeds into Long Island Sound.

Joe Salvatore is the state’s Department of Transportation program manager for this project, and told IDR that DOT has put aside some money for the project.

Stratford is on the west side of the river at its conjunction with Long Island Sound.

Water projects in the state must comply with the state’s coastal management program to receive approvals and funding, making the goals of the pilot program subject to planning on several layers of government.

The Housatonic River is authorized at 18 feet, which is no longer needed, since an upstream power plant changed from barge to truck-delivered fuel.

The boat traffic on the river is now mainly recreational and oyster vessels, requiring a maximum of 14 feet of depth. There are high spots in the channel, mostly on riverbends, that are four feet deep at mean low water in places.

“We’re not proposing a large amount of material,” said Stedman, but maintenance dredging to serve 600 recreational boats and sailboats with keels that use the channels.

As with a number of the selected projects, the local sponsors want to change the placement plans for the dredged material. The Corps of Engineers has designated open water placement for the Housatonic material, but the Connecticut Coastal Commission wants to beneficially use the material, which is beach quality sand, by placing it in the littoral zone in Long Island Sound west of the river mouth, with the dual purpose of beach replenishment and establishment of a suitable habitat for shellfish, which was requested by the State Bureau of Aquaculture.

The Corps did a condition survey, and the Waterfront and Harbor Management Commission is working with that survey data. The Corps will use the pilot project funding for benthic analysis of the proposed placement area, write permits in conjunction with state guidelines, as this is a federal project in the Connecticut coastal zone, and apply for the water quality certification.

Another study, still to be addressed, is to determine where the material placed in the littoral zone will end up.
The other Connecticut project in the program is Wethersfield Cove on the Connecticut River south of Hartford.

“This is a classic low use small harbor, in the oldest city in Connecticut,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Joe Salvatore.

The maintenance material would be purely upland disposal, said Salvatore. This project was put into the program at the last minute and has not yet been identified by the state for funding, though the surveying and testing of the area will go forward this summer.

Chester River, Maryland

The Chester River, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is a heavily used commercial and recreational waterway, said Steve Brown, project manager for the Baltimore District. The commercial traffic is crab and oyster fishermen.
The authorized depth of the channel from the river and through Kent Narrows into Chesapeake Bay is seven feet, silted up to four and three feet in places.

“We’re trying to get the Coast Guard to mark it,” said Brown. “Half the channel is not at depth.”

Queen Anne County doesn’t have the funds to dredge, and neither does the state of Maryland, though for the small amount of material – 8600 cubic yards – the state might find have the money to dredge. Maryland’s fiscal year began on July 1.

The pilot program is providing bathymetric surveys of the channels and placement areas, and analyses of the chemical and physical aspects of the sediment.

Queens Creek and Horn Harbor, Virginia

Mathews County, Virginia boasts five federal navigation projects and 200 miles of shoreline at the tip of Chesapeake Bay’s middle peninsula. The Pilot Program includes two projects in the county, which is largely dependent on waterborne commerce – mainly fishing for a variety of species and shellfish – for its economic health.
Queens Creek is on the northern border of the county, and has an authorized depth of six feet in a 60-foot-wide channel, including a six-foot-deep turning basin at the upper end of the project. The Corps has the permission for beach placement of the dredged material, but the local authorities want to use the material to create a barrier beach to create a roadway that is the only vehicular access to a drawbridge leading to historic Gwynn’s Island.

The Corps Norfolk District project managers are proceeding with geotechnical borings, samples and channel material compatibility tests, under the assumption that the roadway protection beach will be approved.

The other Mathews County project is Horn Harbor, with an authorized channel of seven feet deep by 100 feet wide feeding into Chesapeake Bay. The major traffic consists of commercial fishermen and watermen in support of a seafood industry that is an economic mainstay of the county. The controlling depth is now at 4.7 feet.

The Corps has a traditional beach placement area for this project, but the county and communities want to place the material on Bavon Beach on the southern shore of the peninsula, where a plan is underway to rebuild the eroding beach. Justification for this project is protection of the endangered Virginia Tiger beetle, whose major habitat is Bavon Beach.

The project is in the early stages, with pilot project funds being used for design, geotechnical analysis and environmental assessment under the assumption that the Bavon Beach option will be approved.

New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway

The Philadelphia District received ARRA (recovery) funds to remove critical shoaling in the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway, a 117-mile protected channel that serves recreational boaters and fishermen. The lower end of the channel is authorized to 12 feet, and the ARRA funding covered dredging only as far north as Ocean City.

The Philadelphia District obligated $2.6 million in ARRA funds for dredging critical shoals along the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway in 2009-2010. The ARRA funding covered dredging as far as Ocean City, leaving critical shoaling in place north of that point. The District also obligated $850,000 of ARRA funds specifically for dredging the Cape May ferry area. The Philadelphia District saw the Pilot Program as a way to address some of the remaining shoaled areas in the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway.

Two stretches of the northern reaches of the NJIWW were chosen for the Pilot Project because the State of New Jersey has funds for beach nourishment, and there is a possibility that these could be allocated to dredging in locations where the sand is beach quality and can be used for nourishment of nearby beaches.

Monica Chasten is the project manager for this portion of the Pilot Project, and told IDR that the two locations – the Beach Haven and Broad Thoroughfare reaches – have local entities interested in funding, and possibly contain beach quality sand. The District found sand in grab samples of the area last year, and will go back and more thoroughly test the sediment to ascertain its suitability for beach placement and ecosystem restoration.

The understanding is that alternate locations can be chosen for the Pilot Project if the sand is not suitable at Beach Haven and/or Broad Thoro, Chasten said.

Chasten is planning her first meeting with local sponsors in August.

Editor’s note: many thanks to Geoff Stedman, Joe Salvatore and Ed O’Donnell for information on the Connecticut projects; Steve Brown of the Baltimore District for information on the Chester River; representatives of the Norfolk District for informaation on Queens Creek and Horn Harbor; Monica Chasten and Steve Rochette of the Philadelphia District for information and the map of the NJIWW project area; and George Nieves, Operations Program Manager for the Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, for a wealth of documents and graphics that got this article started.

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