The Baker administration this month began taking small steps toward addressing one of the region’s pressing infrastructure needs.
In a series of “listening sessions,” Jay Ash, Gov. Charlie Baker’s secretary of housing and economic development, heard from town and city officials on the status of the state’s waterways, long treated as an afterthought when placed against the needs of the state’s aging roads and rail lines. For many local communities dredging a river can be as important as retarring a road.
That work, however, comes at a cost, one that can’t be borne entirely by the state. So we are cheered by the willingness of several local communities to partner with the state and federal governments — and each other — to tackle the needed work.
As many municipal officials pointed out in a meeting in Beverly earlier this month, rivers like the Annisquam, the Bass and the Merrimack are important economic engines. And just as bad roads can snarl a commute, silt-filled rivers can affect marine traffic.
“Our sand bar at Crane Beach is about half the size of Ipswich now,” Ipswich police Chief Paul Nikas told Ash at a listening session in Beverly earlier this month.
At that well-attended meeting, local officials pressed home the need for waterway improvements as an economic engine.
“We look at the Bass River area as one of our primary development opportunities,” said Aaron Clausen, Beverly’s planning director. That development can’t happen, he said, unless the river is dredged to a depth that allows for a wider variety of pleasure and commercial craft.
And the need isn’t just about commerce. There is a safety factor at work.
In Essex, where the Essex River hasn’t been dredged for 30 years, “The harbormaster can’t get out at low tide, and the Coast Guard can’t get in at low tide,” Selectwoman Lisa O’Donnell said.
“Essex is really hurting on this,” police Chief Peter Silva told Ash. “We’re really counting on you. It is getting worse. It’s not getting better.”
The problem is there’s only so much money to go around.
“The good news is we have more dollars to spend on dredging this year than last year,” Ash said at the meeting. “We want to prioritize dredging. That is the good news. The bad news is I can’t give you all a grant this year.”
The state has set aside only $4 million for dredging projects this year, against a statewide backlog that could run into the hundreds of millions. And in past years, the state has picked up 75 percent of the cost for such projects. This year the split could be closer to 50-50.
This will mean communities will need to work together on projects of common interest, in the planning stages or by coming together to buy dredging equipment. The federal government has a role as well.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr noted there are already several examples of successful collaboration from which to draw, including the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, which combats coastal erosion in Newbury, Salisbury and Newburyport. The group counts among its members several different state, federal and local agencies, as well as environmental groups.
“The model employed by the alliance has been widely heralded for its effectiveness in tackling major issues and initiatives, including dredging projects,” Tarr said in a memo to Ash. “The largest of these so far completed is the dredging of the Merrimack River in 2010, which resulted in the removal of 140,000 to 160,000 cubic yards of sand” which was later placed on Plum Island.
Meanwhile, the North East Coastal Coalition is working to better coordinate dredging projects from Cape Ann to the New Hampshire border, looking to bring a regional approach to work proposed for the Merrimack, Ipswich, Essex and Annisquam rivers and Manchester Harbor.
If the state and its communities are looking to spend their limited money wisely, it’s clear such cooperatives are the way to go.