September 18, 2008

Differing Approaches on River Dredging

By Randal Edgar

NARRAGANSETT -- The idea of dredging portions of the Narrow River has been studied and talked about for more than 50 years, but as plans for a long-awaited project move forward, the town and the Army Corps of Engineers have different ideas about what is needed.

The Corps of Engineers, focusing on environmental concerns, sees the project as one of habitat restoration -- an undertaking that could restore lost salt marshes, restore eelgrass and shellfish habitats, and perhaps improve water quality.

The Town Council has other goals -- improving navigation in the river and replenishing sand that has been lost from the Town Beach and deposited at the mouth of the river, to name two.

Just how the differing goals will be reconciled remains to be seen. At a face-to-face meeting on Monday, council members left no doubt that they were disappointed with a corps presentation that characterized the project as one of "ecosystem restoration."

Larry Oliver, a corps project manager, said that that has been the focus since the corps began its latest study of the river project in 2005. He also said turning the restoration into a "dredging project" would have to be justified by commercial benefits, which in this case don't exist because the river is not home to a major harbor.

"Right now, there's no justification," he told a roomful of officials and residents from Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown, the three communities that border the river.

Oliver played down the likelihood of dredging the mouth of the river as part of an ecosystem restoration, saying that area -- which has sand similar to that on the town beach -- is an important habitat for migrating birds.

And he said the corps has estimated that even with substantial dredging, the nitrogen content in the river would be reduced by just 3.6 percent.

"That isn't much," he said.

Councilman Christopher Wilkens, who had asked for the meeting, responded that the project, as described, failed to address any of the town's top concerns: improving the flushing of the river, restoring the beach and improving navigation for boaters.

Wilkens also provided some historical perspective, pointing to a 1958 Corps of Engineers plan that would have dredged the river and put sand back on the beach.

"I'm just surprised," he said. "They were talking about adding [sand] back on the beach in 1958 and we're talking about nothing here."

The corps began studying the possibility of an ecosystem restoration for the river in 2005. According to its quarterly reports, the possibilities as recently as July included dredging several areas to restore proper elevations and depths for eelgrass and salt marsh, as well as dredging the river entrance to improve flushing, with dredged sand being placed on the Town Beach.

With help from Sen. Jack Reed, the corps has received $479,088 in federal money to study the project and prepare a report, which Oliver said should be finished in December or January. At that point, the corps will seek public input, he said.

Wilkens said after the meeting that the town has to decide what it wants and then contact the major players, including Reed.

One idea Narragansett council members suggested at the meeting came from the 1958 study referred to by Wilkens: build a breakwater just south of the river entrance to stop sand from the beach from going into the river.

Oliver called the idea "a long shot" but said he "could look at building a little something."

Not everyone at Monday's meeting liked the idea of a breakwater, or of major dredging.

Catalina Martinez, a South Kingstown resident who lives along the river, said neither would be a permanent fix, despite the costs. The ecosystem restoration options described by Oliver had cost estimates ranging from $1.7 million to $10.1 million for a project involving more dredging.

"I think it's an enormous amount of money," said Martinez, who also wanted to know if the towns would come up with a plan to manage boat traffic that might increase if the river is more navigable.

Oliver said that the federal government would cover 65 percent of the project cost, if a project is approved. The rest of the money would probably come from the state, he said.

Narragansett [email protected] / (401) 277-7418

Originally published by Randal Edgar, Journal Staff Writer.

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