In the aftermath of punishing storms that have left several homes vulnerable to the ravenous Atlantic, Plum Island is getting a significant and long-called-for measure of relief that some say doesn’t go far enough.
An infusion of $5.5 million in federal funding will allow the US Army Corps of Engineers to complete its repair of the 1,400-foot-long southern jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River. Deterioration and neglect has for years been blamed as a main contributor to the erosion problems that continue to befall the barrier island spanning Newbury, Newburyport, and Ipswich.
The money is expected to come from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, and will serve to augment $3.75 million allotted last year for the project. Work isn’t expected to begin until 2014, according to the Army Corps.
After years of watching the beach vanish and the ocean creep closer, residents and officials are relieved by the progress.
“We’re happy that the federal government and Army Corps are laser-focused on the Merrimack project,” said Bob Connors, who lives on Annapolis Way in Newbury, one of the island’s hardest-hit areas.
Still, he and others said, it’s ultimately just one step in the process to restore Plum Island to its former robust self, with regular dredging, beach scraping, proactive storm measures, and the creation of a long-term management plan. “We need all options on the table,” Connors said.
In the meantime, the initial phase of work, costing $3.75 million, is nearly completed. Hugo Key and Son, Inc., of Newport, R.I., started in late October, placing more than 10,000 tons of stone along the first 800 feet of the jetty, with pieces ranging in size from one to 12 tons, according to Jack Karalius, project manager with the Army Corps’ New England district. Work will be completed by March 31, which is the cutoff for construction activities designated by wildlife officials to protect the migratory habitat of the endangered piping plover.
The second phase, to be covered by the $5.5 million — bringing the total to about $9.25 million for the project — will allow the Army Corps to complete the last 700 feet of the jetty, Karalius said, and should take three to five months. The Corps will start work on contract plans and specifications as soon as possible, he said, and will likely begin the bidding process later this year.
The next step will be to repair the northern jetty, Karalius said, although there are no funds yet allotted for it.
“The recent winter storms have only reinforced how urgent this matter is for homeowners and the surrounding communities,” US Representative John Tierney said in a statement. He will continue pressing for attention and funding to address the deterioration of the northern jetty, he said, which “is of significant concern to local leaders and residents of Salisbury.”
Connors said he doesn’t anticipate any direct benefit for the southern part of the island when the south jetty is completed.
Instead, he called for the continuation of regular dredging of the Merrimack River, what he called a critical component of maintaining the channel and the coastal environment. It was a practice that was done regularly up until about a decade ago, he said.
“When they did that on regular basis, we had vibrant, healthy beaches,” he said.
But that process stopped because of cuts to the Army Corps budget, as well as diversion of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which was established in 1986 and imposed a tax on imported cargo to create a pool of money to pay for ongoing maintenance of harbor channels. However, that money has been pulled away for other purposes, and in recent years, critics and legislators from various states have called for it to be restored to its intended purpose.
According to Karalius, there are no immediate plans for dredging, although the Army Corps will eventually perform a condition survey and will likely dredge at some point in the next several years.
But the hope, he said, is that the completion of the south jetty will keep the channel open so dredging won’t be frequently required.
Officials and residents have tried numerous measures over the years to protect homes, from hay bale barriers to giant sandbag walls, to planting of sea grass and installing sand fencing. In late 2010, a $5.5 million dredging project by the Army Corps deposited 110,000 cubic yards of a sandy slurry on the beach, and this January, several residents on Annapolis Way paid roughly $9,000 to perform beach scraping, a process that involves moving sand from one area to shore up another.
Connors said the area weathered relatively well during Hurricane Sandy in October, but suffered from the late-December storm that brought 12- to 14-foot tides. The February blizzard chewed away another sizable chunk of shoreline.
At least a dozen homes have had their decks or structures damaged, and many more are in “imminent danger,” Connors said. “Anything but a natural process is going on up here.”