Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck Dredge Update: March 19

Some news coming out of the Barnstable Conservation Commission’s hearing on the plan to dredge 800 feet or 11 acres off of the western end of Sampson’s Island last night:

  • The Commission is still in fact-finding mode and did not make a decision last night. Whenever they do vote, they are not the last word.
  • Dozens of letters were received by the Commission from local residents for and against the application. Forces are mobilizing on both sides of the debate.
  • Three Bays Preservation and Massachusetts Audubon amended their three-year plan to a four-year/four-phase project with public review after each phase is completed
  • The town Shellfish Commission and the town’s marine biologist have written letters stating there is no significant shellfish impact but they are concerned about impacts on shellfish elsewhere in the three-bay system
  • Conservation Commission administrator Rob Gatewood confirmed in January with the Cape Cod Commission that the ConCom is free to proceed with hearings and that the project, while the Cape Cod Commission is aware of it, is not within their jurisdiction as a project with regional impact
  • The law firm of Nutter, McClellen & Fish has been retained by Cotuit waterfront property owners and has hired the Woods Hole Group to perform a peer review of the project, particularly the coastal engineering studies performed by Applied Coastal Engineering of Mashpee.

I did not stay for the complete conclusion of the hearing, so I can’t report on the next steps, other than to assume the commission will continue to gather facts and make its ruling for or against, or with recommendations of modifications. The application does have a somewhat torturous journey through the bureaucratic system, including a review by the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program. With several members of the public urging an “independent review” of the application, and with the news that any citizen can request that the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency review the project, I would not bet on a quick approval of what is admitted by both opponents and proponents as a significant project affecting 800 feet of spit and a total of 11 acres of sand, mud and grass.


[The March 2013 Dead Neck/Sampson’s Island Coastal Processes and Flooding Study by Applied Coastal Engineering was, in my opinion, the highlight of the hearing. It can be downloaded from Three Bays website here]

I thought the applicants and their engineers were well prepared prepared last night,  obviously modifying their presentation a bit based on the feedback they’ve received from their experiences before local civic associations, the initial January 8 ConCom hearing, and reviews by the town’s shellfish and waterways committees. Some points to note from the presentation and summary of the project:

  • Lindsay Counsell, the executive director of Three Bays Preservation, reminded the commission that this application is a continuance of a “maintenance dredging” permit issued to the previous owners of Sampsons Island in the 1930s. “Maintenance” raised some eyebrows as 11 acres is hardly a trim and a shave, but more of a decapitation, but technically it means removing sand from a defined area and not the net new removal of material.
  • Counsell reiterated that the island is private property, not a public beach, but that 3-Bays and Audubon have no intentions of restricting public access in the future. This was an obvious response to opponents who decry the loss of beachfront for summer recreation.
  • John Ramsey, the coastal engineer from Applied Coastal Engineering, made a strong presentation based on historical aerial photos about the state of Sampson’s over the last 125 years and the erosion impacts the spit’s growth is having on the Cotuit shoreline, especially in the area of Riley’s Beach. He emphasized that the gradual constriction of the Cotuit channel and the fact that the ebb (falling) tide is strongest in Cotuit, is causing the current to accelerate over time and scour the channel and adjacent beaches, “winnowing” away the sand and leaving behind gravel and stones.
  • The “do-nothing” option raised the dire prediction by the applicants that Dead Neck would eventually breach and the eastern end of the island would join Oyster Harbors while the Cotuit spit could join the mainland. Audubon said such a situation would be a disaster for nesting terns and plovers as it would open the island up to predators from the mainland.
  • The project is now being proposed for four years based on a reduction in the available window for winter work based on concerns by the shellfish committee and the state’s department of Marine Fisheries which has expressed concerns about impacts on the winter flounder population (I would personally love to see a healthy winter flounder population return to Cotuit Bay as I have tried several times to catch one and have never succeeded). Work would commence in mid-January and have to conclude before the spring season.
  • The bad guy in all of this are the Wianno Cut jetties (more on that in a future post) and the groins along the Cotuit and Mashpee shore. Only one person, David Rickel of Cotuit, raised the point that nowhere is anyone discussing the cause of this situation which seems to consign us to a major dredging every ten years to fix the impacts of the Osterville jetties on the natural flow of sand from east to west.
  • Opponents expressed concern about losing an important barrier beach to protect Bluff Point and Cotuit Bay from the impact of significant storms. Ramsey showed a photograph taken during Irene in 2011 when the spit was overwashed and flooded, and argued that the shoals south of the island and off of Oregon are natural wave barriers. Brad Wheelwright of Cotuit made a strong case for not dredging in anticipation of forecasted rises in sea level, a rise which is already obvious along some bayside beaches and which the ConComm chairman said could rise as high as nine three feet in this century.
  • It was depressing to learn that the last time Three Bays dredged and reinforced the eastern end of Dead Neck was in 2000 when the same amount of material (approximately 180,000 cubic yards)  was taken from the internal channels of Cotuit, Seapuit and West Bay that is being proposed by this application.  Add that to the crazy helicopter project and other minor dredging and reinforcement attempts and it is obvious that the protection of the east end of Dead Neck from breaching is a veritable Sisyphean exercise.
  • The funky mud bank that has emerged south of the spit over the past few years will be removed, taken to Loop Beach, where it will be “de-watered” and trucked away. Why? Because it appears the mud may not be “naturally deposited” — giving credence to the rumors that someone dumped it there. Apparently “boat hooks” and other debris have been pulled out of the strange mess.

I didn’t speak up last night, but continue to favor the project based on my recollection of the 1968 dredging and how a diminished Sampson’s is more the norm than the exception. I also believe something has to be done about the narrow Cotuit channel for navigation reasons, to reduce the appeal of swimmers stupid enough to attempt the crossing from Riley’s, and to reduce the velocity of the current and its impacts on the Cotuit shoreline. I hope it will have some positive impact on water quality in lower Cotuit Bay but share some opponent’s concerns that the disruption of the environment could negatively impact what little life is left on the bottom of the harbor. A Dead Neck breach and the impact on Seapuit would be disastrous in my opinion.

I am more of the opinion that Conservation and Three Bays need to start talking about the removal of the groins  and jetties that “armor” the coast. Until that happens, this insanity is going to repeat itself forever.


I’ve never seen this chart of the region, dating back to the 1890s before the construction of the Cut and its jetties as well as the “armoring” of the coast by waterfront property owners over the last 100 years. Click the image for a full view and note what the natural configuration of the shoreline was — and how some former features such as the Popponesset Spit, Rushy Marsh, and the channel between Sampsons and Dead Neck have been lost due to some bad decisions made in the early 1900s.

I close with this quote by Ernest R. Matthews from his work Coast Erosion and Protection (1934):

“The marine engineer has no greater problem to deal with than this. The construction of harbors upon a sandy coast is always risky, resulting in no end of trouble and expense … The interference with the natural sand-travel upon a coast cannot but be injurious: the breaking of any of Nature’s laws has a detrimental effect.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

One thought on “Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck Dredge Update: March 19”

  1. The Cape and its coastline is simply an accident of nature – an accident that continues, and will continue. Maps made of the Cape in the seventeenth century are often looked at as inaccurate because of primitive surveying methods, but more often than not it is simply that the Cape has and will continue to evolve. The ocean can be intoxicatingly beautiful and benign, but never underestimate its power to do what ever it wishes…much to the chagrin of we creatures at the top of the food chain.

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