Wednesday night the Cotuit Santuit Civic Association met at the Cotuit Library to hear representatives from Three Bays and Mass Audubon describe their proposed dredging and bird habitat restoration application. Engineers were also in attendance to answer questions.
This was an informational session for the members of the Association. January 8 the application will be presented to Barnstable’s Conservation Commission for its review, part of a long permitting process that will require sign off from the town’s waterways and shellfish committees, the state, and eventually the Army Corps of Engineers.
The application is for a permit to dredge, in three winter phases, about 800 feet or 11 acres of sand off of the western spit of Sampsons and backfill it through pipes to the east end by the Wianno Cut, the man-made breach dug through the sand spit in the early 1900s. This would build up the sand-starved section behind the western jetty of the cut, prevent an over-wash and breach of Nantucket Sound through the island into the Seapuit River, and re-establish a gentle berm on a beach that is now a sheer wall of eroded scarp unsuitable for the nesting shorebirds that make the barrier island one of the most important shorebird breeding areas in Massachusetts.
Here’s a bullet list of random new things I learned. If you want to get smart about the project, go to the 3 Bays website and take a look at the application and engineering plans yourself.
- The western spit and Cotuit entrance to the three-bays has been dredged several times in the past: 1934, 1947 and 1967. Three Bays has been active in dredging the internal channel and has shaved a few dozen feet from the point in recent times. I remember the 1967-68 project when the sand was not pumped east, but deposited in a small hill right behind the point, a hill that has since been overgrown with beach grass.
- No one knows what the recent appearance of clay on the south side of Cotuit point means. It would need to be excavated and trucked away.
- The opening of the channel will improve Cotuit Bay’s water quality about 7% (I don’t know by what measure, e.g. nitrogen ppm, etc.) and the overall three-bay systems by 3%
- The tree removal proposed by Mass Audubon is to reduce the copse of trees around the eastern shores of Cupid’s Cove (variously referred to last night as “Cupid’s” “Pirate’s” and “Lovers Cove) to reduce predation of tern and piping plover chicks by crows.
- The sand is needed to provide more open breeding ground for the birds who cannot breed in dense vegetation. Hence the plan is not to pump, shore up, and plant protective beach grass, but to create more open sand areas favorable for the birds to make their nests.
- This application gives the two groups permission to maintain the project over a decade without having to re-apply.
- If nothing is done then several scenarios could emerge. 1) the east end breaches, Seapuit River is compromised, and the island could join Grand Island/Oyster Harbors 2) Cupid’s Cove will continue to overwash and eventually breach and 3) the Cotuit end could join the mainland around Riley’s Beach.
- Sampson’s was the private property of one Harry Bailey (must research who he was) who donated it to Mass Audubon with the express wish that it be maintained as a wildlife sanctuary.
- In 1958 there were 1000 pairs of nesting common terns, the best year ever. Now a good year is considered to see less than half that number, with 400 pairs nesting in 1998. Other species include roseate and least terns.
- In terms of bird predation, the biggest killers are crows and coyotes. Humans only can be directly connected to one percent of bird deaths.
- Kicking people off the island is not a motive. The barrier island is very crowded with boaters and sunbathers in the peak months of July and August. While Mass Audubon requires a membership card to sit on the beach (I strongly recommend you get one for your family if you haven’t and put it on an automatic renewal) there is no indication they are trying to “kick people” off the beach. Dickheads who bring dogs to the island should be horsewhipped. For the most part the bird wardens do a good job “fencing” off the breeding spots with string and sticks and generally being a friendly presence, checking membership cards and offering to educate people about the importance of the reserve.
- The project will cost $1.5 million, which will need to be raised from private donors. Former town councilor Rick Barry quizzed Lindsay Counsell, the executive director of Three Bays, about the use of public funds, but it wasn’t clear to me whether Three Bays would seek town assistance as it tries to get its dredging projects integrated with the town’s comprehensive dredging plan. That would cut down on the expensive re-permitting process.
- The engineers said alternatives to the proposal have been considered and rejected as too expensive or unfeasible due to the regulatory environment. Questions from the audience about alternatives to carving off of the point for sand, and going into Nantucket Sound either as part of a process to widen and deepen the navigational channels or take sand from further out in the Sound were rejected due to regulatory difficulties in such “sand mining.”
- Best case scenario for starting the three-year project would be to get all permits in place by next fall and commence the first dredging in January and February 2014. That small window follows the busy holiday season at the Cotuit and Cape Cod Oyster Companies, and would complete the work before the birds migrate and begin to breed in late April, early May. The dredging would continue in 2015 and 2016.
Conclusions: I remain in favor, but the sad reality is this is a Sisyphean project that will need to be repeated over and over. The culprit in everybody’s mind is the “armoring” of the coast line by the wealthy waterfront owners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with groins, bulkheads and jetties. If we were to seek an everlasting solution then the answer would be to remove the Osterville jetties, plug the Wianno Cut, and force the removal of all man made structures along the coast line that now impede the natural coastal drift of the sand.
And even then, if that impossible vision were achieved, we’d need to confront that fact that rampant coastal development has utterly trashed the interior estuaries and getting nitrogen levels down is the only way to get water quality back to pre 1970-Rape-Of-The-Cape levels.
So, dredge away and dredge some more, don’t bring your dog to the island, read up, and get involved.