Connecting the DOTS
February 5, 2016
February 5th was the first day of a three-day storm that would prove to be one of the most damaging of the winter. But despite the abysmal conditions people drove from as far away as New Hampshire to attend this, the February meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Users Alliance.
The MBRA was a fascinating coalition of government officials and homeowner representatives. They had sanctioned the construction of illegal seawalls and condoned working with a Washington lobbyist to repair the jetties under the mistaken impression that it would stop erosion in Newbury more than a mile away.
I disagreed with almost everything the group had done to Plum Island but I had learned to respect state senator Bruce Tarr, the affable chairman of the committee, and his ability to make things happen.
Normally these meetings were pretty stolid affairs with longwinded discussions about dredging sand and repairing jetties. But this meeting had an altogether different feel.
Usually the meeting would open with Senator Tarr praising Ed O’Donnell, the head of the Navigation Unit of the Army Corps of Engineer’s Northeast Division. Ed was justifiably proud of the Army Corps of Engineers. They were the best in the business at building levees and jetties. But they were the worst in the business at creating unintended consequences. It was the Corps’ levees that had raised the Mississippi River but caused the unintended consequence of the flooding of New Orleans during Katrina.
And today Ed was staring across the table at some more unintended consequences, 24 of the 235 homeowners in Newburyport who stood to lose their houses because the Corps had repaired the South jetty. The Corps had done it at the behest of residents in nearby Newbury.
The Newbury residents sat on the other side of the room not saying a word. Despite the fact that four of their houses were also in jeopardy because the jetty repair had not worked as advertised.
The Northern Reservation Terrace residents had noticed that the currents were stronger and the waves were higher immediately after the repair had been completed. But it had taken the last storm to make them fully aware of how much erosion had increased. It was eating away the dunes at the rate of 30 feet a month and had advanced 300 feet in just the last two years. At that rate many homes would be in trouble in less than two years.
The meeting opened with an update on a proposal by George Chiros, a charter boat captain, to dredge up sand that had built up in front of his dock since the jetty repair. He proposed removing a thousand trunkful’s of sand and giving it to the city of Newburyport so they could slow the erosion threatening Northern Reservation Terrace. The only problem was, that the storm raging outside had removed about a thousand trunkful’s of sand in just the past two hours.
So what people really wanted to hear was what the Army Corps of Engineers planned to do. But this agenda item made me a little nervous. A month before I had asked Ed if he could help us get someone from the Corps to come up and talk to a small group about how a weir jetty and might help renourish North Point.
He explained that the only way the Corps could justify paying for someone to fly up from their laboratory in Vicksburg Mississippi would be if he put in a formal request for a Dredging Operations Technical Support or DOTS study. I figured that would probably never happen so I went on to other things.
But a few weeks later Ed wrote back saying he had made the request and that Vicksburg was assembling a group to study whether the Merrimack River needed a weir jetty. This threw into a bit of a panic. It meant I had inadvertently started the process, but I was just a local journalist, a hack who lacked the authority or standing of a state or city official.
I drafted several e-mails to try to explain the situation to Ed but they all made me sound like a jerk. Finally I decided that it really didn’t matter who had made the request as long as it had got the ball rolling. It had already taken a month to get things rolling. Why wait another month to have someone else make the request? So I simply wrote an article for the Newburyport Current saying that the DOTS study was in the works but left it just a little bit vague as to exactly how it had all come about.
Ed was kind and never blew my cover. A lot of people at the meeting felt that nothing would ever come of all the studies, but I had the impression that Ed realized the Corps had made a mistake building the jetty to stabilize the navigation channel when the real reason the Newbury residents had pushed for it was for the fanciful idea that it would stop erosion almost a mile away.
Those chickens had come home to roost but Ed needed somebody higher up in the Corps’ formidable bureaucracy to give the order to do something about it. He said that the DOTS study could be started in the spring but if Congressman Moulton were to call the Army Corps of Engineer’s office in Washington I’d be willing to make a small wager that it could start much faster.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and through Amazon.com.