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Source: Greenwich Times

Dredging plans for Mianus River channel and Greenwich Harbor channel

BY FRANK MACEACHERN
STAFF WRITER

Posted: April 14, 2010
Originally Published: April 12, 2010

When low tide arrives, Jardar Nygaard, co-owner of Cos Cob-based Fjord Fisheries, knows there's a good chance his clam boat will scrape the river bottom as it sails the Mianus River.

"On a very low tide you can feel yourself really pushing through the mud. It's like chocolate pudding," he said.

It's not only the river bottom that poses a hazard, it is also anything that has been dumped over the side of a boat or somehow made its way into the river, he said.

"If there's any metal there, you can hit that. Two years go I damaged a propeller after it hit some metal -- just a day after I got it back after spending $800 to repitch it," Nygaard said, referring to a propeller adjustment.

But an official hopes that plans for a multimillion dredging job to remove decades of built-up sediments in the Greenwich Harbor Channel and the Mianus River will pass both funding and environmental hurdles.

John Craine, chairman of the First Selectman's Advisory Committee on Coastal Resources, said a decade's worth of dirt from storm water runoff has gradually filled the waterways.

"If you don't dredge, you would be restricted to coming in on a high tide," Craine said. "It doesn't provide much usable space for anyone."

The Greenwich Harbor Channel was last dredged in 1968, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to dredge 250,000 cubic yards at a price tag of $12 million.

The harbor channel is 1.4 miles long with an authorized depth of 12 feet at low tide. But a 2007 corps study fund the depth had been reduced to just over seven feet in places. The channel's width varies from 100 to 300 feet wide.

Greenwich Harbor Channel's northern end begins where the town's ferries are docked near Arch Street and extends to the south where the private Indian Harbor Yacht Club sits at the tip of a peninsula at the end of Steamboat Road.

Mianus River was last dredged in 1985, and the proposed $4 million project will see 45,000 cubic yards dredged, Craine said. The channel is 1.2 miles long with an authorized depth of six feet and a width of 100 feet for most of the channel.

The Mianus River section is about one mile long, stretching from just south East Putnam Avenue to about 100 yards south of the railroad bridge near the mouth of Cos Cob harbor.

The first obstacle for both projects is money, Craine said, and the competition for those federal funds is fierce.

"We're competing against the dredging of harbors where large cargo ships come in, like Houston, New York and San Francisco," he said.

A senior corps official agrees that Greenwich is in a crowded field.

Edward O'Donnell, chief of the navigation section for the corps New England district, said large ports that help fuel the American economy get priority.

"The corps has limited funding and right now they are prioritizing doling out the funds," he said. "New York Harbor has millions of tons of cargo and Greenwich probably has zero." The corps maintains the federal navigation channels.

The corps submitted requests of $400,000 and $100,000 this year to Congress for work including testing the material in Greenwich Harbor. O'Donnell said the Mianus River has been found to be clean enough to dump in the Western Long Island Sound disposal site a few miles off Greenwich, in waters near the state line with New York.

In Byram, the Port Chester Harbor channel is overseen by the Corps of Engineers New York District. It was last dredged in 1990 when 40,000 cubic yards of sediment was scooped from the bottom. There are no plans currently to dredge that channel, said New York District Corps spokesman Chris Gardner.

If funding is approved, Craine hopes dredging can occur in 2013.

The environment presents another hurdle.

Traditionally, dredged material was taken by barge out to Long Island Sound and dumped at sites either a few miles off Greenwich or in waters off New Haven.

But increasingly, there is a push by federal and state governments to divert more of the material to landfills or to reuse it.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said as much of the dredged material as possible should be diverted to landfills or recycled.

"Open water is the option of last resort," she said. Municipalities and the corps "have to look at alternatives and evaluate them first. It's not saying no under any circumstances, but they (the Ennvironmental Protection Agency and state governments) are making it harder and harder to dispose of it in open water."

She said this was hammered home in a 2005 agreement that the EPA, and the states of Connecticut and New York agreed to. It called for depositing dredged materials to be placed in the Sound only if there was no viable alternative, Esposito said.

She agreed it is more expensive to find these land-based solutions but said it is cheaper in the long run since it is not polluting Long Island Sound.

"The plan is to change our mind-set from polluting the Sound to reusing the materials."

She said the dredged material and dispersed sediment negatively affects marine life.

Esposito advocates re-using as much of the dredged material as possible.

"It shouldn't be viewed as a waste project, it should be viewed as a raw material," she said. "It is not rocket science."

But there is a high cost to recycling or placing the material in a landfill.

Trucking material to an inland site costs more than simply dumping it in the Sound. There is also the cost of finding a site to dispose of contaminated material.

For instance last year the Town of Greenwich completed a $1.9 million project that dredged 24,700 cubic yards of material near Grass Island. Two thousand cubic yards was discovered to be contaminated with heavy metals and could not be dumped in the Sound. That had to be handled separately at a cost of $160 per cubic yard. The contaminated material was taken by barge to New Haven where it was mixed with cement to thicken it before it was finally trucked to Meriden to be dumped as landfill in a tire pond.

In comparison, the remaining 22,700 cubic yards cost $55 per cubic yard to have it dumped in the Sound.

None of the material was recycled, said town official Fred Walters, and he didn't know what the price tag would be for that.

"Economics weigh heavily in our decision," Walters said. "It is significantly more expensive (to take the material to a land site) if there is no disposal site close by."

Craine hopes the environmental and financial barriers will be overcome and the projects don't get stuck on a bureaucratic mud flat.

"We're working hard with the corps to develop an effective business plan to convince the federal government," he said.

As he pilots a boat around Greenwich Harbor on a warm early spring day, Frank Rupp, a marine technician and part-time ferry captain with the town, said dredging the channel will make it easier for boaters to navigate.

"It's very important to dredge, it affects everyone, and there are some boaters who have trouble turning their boats because there just isn't the depth," he said.