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July 27, 2013

Essex, Annisquam rivers eyed for dredging

PLUM ISLAND — Members of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance have launched an initiative to provide help to the rivers to the south, including the Annisquam and the Essex.

But alliance officials appear to be paddling upstream due to financial constraints of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The alliance Friday deviated from its regular focus on the problems of sand dune erosion or the financial burden of rebuilding houses that were swept away by last winter’s storms. Instead, members mulled how to help public officials responsible for the health and prosperity of the Ipswich, the Essex and the Annisquam rivers.

The mouths of all three rivers are being increasingly clogged by sand, but officials’ appeals to the Army Corps engineers for dredging or re-engineering assistance do not fall within the purview of the federal body.

“Assistance requests like these are way down on the priority list,” said Edward O’Donnell, chief, navigation division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England district.

“The funding that would be available goes to projects that have commercial traffic, like the deepening of Boston Harbor. Rivers in this area are viewed as recreational, and there’s no money for that now.”

The three rivers share a common ecosystem with Plum Island. They are all within the same necklace of sandy barrier beaches and saltmarshes that define the coastline from Gloucester to Hampton. N.H. It’s been apparent for a few years that a silty sand has been accumulating at the southernmost end of the ecosystem, clogging up the river entrances and expanding offshore sandbars.

Alliance leaders had invited elected officials and harbormasters from Essex, Ipswich and Gloucester to the session to discuss their needs.

“Our river mouth is turning into a sand bar, and this is making it very difficult for boats to get in and out,” said Essex Police Chief Peter Silva, who doubles as the town’s harbormaster. “It’s been accelerating for the last five years, and is serious because our marinas and commerce depend on boating. We’re getting choked off.

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