BY Dyke Hendrickson
---- — 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.
“The need for dredging is at an all-time high right now,” Silva added, noting that the harbormaster’s boat only got about 100 feet off of the dock before getting stuck during a recent excursion.
“In two or three years, we are going to be locked out of the river,” he said. “People don’t realize how bad it’s getting, it’s to the point where it’s not even navigable.”
An article to dredge the Essex River was presented by the Board of Selectmen at Annual Town Meeting this past spring, but was ultimately shot down by voters. Silva said the issue is likely to come at a future town meeting.
Harbor officials from Gloucester said that commonly used parts of the Annisquam are so shallow that it’s difficult for two boats to traverse the river in opposite directions.
The discussion underlined the notion that oceanside areas of the North Shore share the problem of shifting sand patterns that don’t necessarily serve local commercial interests.
The situation also focuses on a conundrum faced by these adjacent communities: River dwellers to the south want to get rid of sand and residents of Plum Island desperately want to acquire the grainy substance to fortify their disappearing dunes. But there is no federal money to permit an exchange to happen.
Gloucester-based State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who chaired the alliance meeting, said, “We’re hitting a wall.”
Tarr suggested that more seaside communities work together to gain political strength, and hopefully, inspire federal leaders to produce financial packages that will serve local commercial interests.
Because the Army Corps, which has shown significant cooperation with North Shore legislators in the past two years, doesn’t have the money.
“I hear what you are saying about the problems of the three rivers, and getting together in a political way,” said O’Donnell. “As the situation now stands, there is no funding for (recreational) projects like that.”
On a separate matter, town officials in Newbury reported rapidly escalating home-insurance rates for homeowners along the Atlantic.
Joe Story, chairman of Newbury’s Board of Selectman, said that under a new program local seaside dwellers who had been paying $450 per year for insurance could be paying as much as $7,000 per year in the future.
Town officials say that federal officials are trying to substitute an insurance plan that pays for itself, rather than the current program that is government subsidized.
Tarr said that he plans to set up a meeting with insurance executives so that state and local officials can learn more about coping with insurance rates that appear to be shifting as wildly as the swirling sand offshore.
Staff Writer James Niedzinski contributed to this story.