More money needed for river dredging 

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff file photoA plan to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge shallow parts of the Annisquam River this year and perhaps next is on hold as the City of Gloucester looks to pay for the work. Bids came in much higher than expected.

GLOUCESTER — The much-anticipated federal project to dredge the Annisquam River could be dead in the water or require significant changes unless more funding is secured to help return the key Cape Ann channel to safe navigable levels.

City officials were scrambling Monday to identify more funding sources from the state and federal governments after being informed Friday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the only two bids received for the project were exponentially higher than the $6 million price tag estimated by Army Corps managers.

“We need to find a way to get emergency funds to do this,” Jim Destino, the city’s chief administrative officer, said Monday afternoon. “We’ve been working on this for seven years. This is a public safety issue, so it’s imperative that we get this done.”

Portions of the river north of the MBTA Commuter Rail bridge and parts of the Lobster Cove anchorage have become so shallow that they preclude the use of larger emergency vessels from the Coast Guard and the city. The result, according to emergency responders, is a lack of access to certain areas for larger vessels and potentially longer response times to emergencies.

There also are concerns that the reduction of navigable passages could have a continuing deleterious impact on commercial lobstermen and fishermen that work the river or use it to navigate around Cape Ann. 

Destino said city officials have scheduled a conference call for Tuesday with representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton and U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren to begin the task of identifying additional federal funds that could be used for the project.

Destino said state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who has been involved in the project from its inception, is exploring other state funding mechanisms to help close the cavernous gap between budgeted money and bid amounts.

If the additional funds cannot be immediately found, another alternative is segmenting the project so the initial work can begin as the search for supplementary funds continues, Destino said.

Time clearly is of the essence. The project, designed to remove 140,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from the river, was slated to begin in October. One more winter without dredging, Destino said, could render much of the river impassable to all but the smallest vessels.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the project, unsealed the two bids on Aug. 2, unleashing an immediate bout of sticker shock.

The bid by Salem-based Burnham Associates was $13,688,500 — more than double the Army Corps’s cost estimate of $6,012,448. The bid from Branford, Connecticut-based Coastline Consulting and Development was almost as high — $11,404,525.

Destino said the disparity between the government estimate and the bids prompted the Army Corps to commission an engineering report to determine why the bids came in so much higher than the estimated cost of the project.

“They’re looking to find out if they just missed the mark or what happened,” Destino said. “The results are not in yet.”

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday said project manager Erika Marks was in meetings all day and unavailable for comment.

Reshaped schedule

The long-awaited project already has gone through several changes that the Army Corps conceded would raise the price tag. But they weren’t expecting it to double.

Initially, the Army Corps envisioned the dredging and dumping of debris would take about four months.

But concerns over the project’s impact on the river’s winter flounder habitat, and on commercial lobstering during the late autumn and early winter, convinced the Corps to consider extending work into a second season — 2021 — to compensate for scheduling restrictions.

The dredging plan calls for most of the removed sandy material — about 32,599 cubic yards — to be transported to the Ipswich Bay Nearshore Disposal Site about 1.5 miles north Wingaersheek and Coffin beaches.

The remainder of about 7,500 cubic yards of sandy material and all of the gravel is set to be deposited at the Gloucester Historic Disposal Site, which is about seven-tenths of a mile due south of the Dog Bar breakwater.

Also, at the behest of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the Army Corps reshaped the schedule so that dredged material only will be dumped at the Gloucester disposal site in December and January “to minimize interaction with lobstering.”

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association supported the DMF position.

“The Gloucester dredge disposal site is within an important area for the lobster fishery,” DMF Director David Pierce, said in a letter to the Army Corps. “Throughout the spring and summer, egg-bearing females are particularly vulnerable. Adult lobsters are in highest abundance in the fall and the Gloucester fishery is most active during this time.”

The plan also calls for the city to remove 100-150 city-owned moorings in the areas of the river to be dredged. 

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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