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Why aren’t creeks in Suffolk County being dredged?

According to an article by Bill Bleyer in Newsday, Suffolk County had plans to dredge 23 creeks, inlets and rivers to remove built-up sand that restricts access to open water, but the plans got stuck in bureaucratic mud.

Apparently the environmental studies required by federal agencies, whose approval is critical, were never performed by the county, which said it was not aware of the need until the last minute. This is pretty odd since the county and federal officials have worked together on such projects for years and the need for the surveys as a precondition for dredging permits is well known. Another federal agency with responsibility for the waterways, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) seems to have “lost” a half-dozen dredging-permit applications.

The lost applications and the communications problems led to fewer than 10 of the scheduled 23 creeks being dredged before the window of opportunity closed. Limited dates when dredging is permitted are intended to safeguard birds and marine creatures which might be harmed by the roiling of the waters and the deposit of sand upon the beaches during their mating/nesting seasons. It is unlikely that further dredging can now occur until the autumn window opens.

County Executive Steve Levy is reported to have said. “The problem is [the] numerous new regulations and obstacles relating to permitting on the federal level. There are shortened windows in which to dredge, more conditions and more difficulty in finding places to drop the spoil, and a lack of staff that limits coordination with local governments. It has an impact on our economy and the ability to recreate, which is why so many people want to live here in the first place.”

“There are problems with the process,” conceded Richard Tomer, chief of the regulatory branch of the ACoE’s New York District Office. His office, which issues dredging permits to local governments, is reviewing how such applications are handled.

It appears that although the county filed dredging applications with the Corps last summer, it was not until December that they received a letter telling them of the need to complete two additional federal environmental assessments that had not previously been required. Suffolk hired an environmental consultant for $40,000 to do this work, but it was already too late. The consultant had only until April 1, 2007 to prepare assessments for 12 projects in Southold, Riverhead and Southampton, before the critical dredging window closed to accommodate the nesting piping plover. This year the window was shorter than it had been in the past.

Faced with unhappy boaters and waterfront homeowners, the county has sought emergency approval to dredge outside the normal windows. The chief engineer of the Suffolk Public Works Department, Bill Hillman, said that there were five “supercritical projects where there is ankle deep water at low tide.” The ACoE, however, maintains that the current situation is not serious enough to meet the criteria of an emergency. A spokesman noted that in the past such things as an imminent flooding of an upstate chemical plant and the aftermath of the 9-11 attack in Manhattan were the only times emergency authority has been granted.

Richard Tomer blames the county for not keeping abreast of changing requirements. “A lot of what is happening is because the county gave us incomplete information regarding Endangered Species Act issues, primarily piping plover and the Essential Fish Habitat Assessment.” he said. “We have been asking for that information for years from the applicants.”

Hillman notes that the county was aware of the two assessments now required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service, but in the past, the federal agencies had filled them out. “We file applications to the ACoE all the time and this was the first we heard about it. And the Corps had never issued promised guidelines on how to fill out the forms.” he added.

The result of all this petty bureaucratic wrangling is that nearly two dozen creeks and estuaries that are in need of clearing will remain blocked for another whole season denying recreational boaters, fishermen, bathers and other users of Southold’s shoreline the opportunity to access open waters.

As water in the creeks becomes stagnant it has the potential to harm other wildlife: the ospreys, the cormorants the geese, the swan and the egret as well as fox, rabbits and the tortoise who live, hunt and nest along our shores. For people, there is a real potential for life-threatening incidents as boats attempt to navigate the shoals thrown up by the April 15 Nor’easter.

There were 23 pending projects of which only 10 were approved in time to do the work.

The dredged areas include:
1. Timber Point Police Marina, Great River
2. Homan’s Creek, Bayport
3. Boylan Lane Canal, Blue Point
4. Mud Creek, East Patchogue
5. Hawk’s Creek, Jamesport
6. East Creek, South Jamesport
7. West Creek, Cutchogue
8. Budd’s Pond, Southold
9. Cold Spring Pond, Southampton
10. Wooley Pond, Southampton

Sites in need of dredging that were affected by the permitting problems include:
11. Nissequogue River, Smithtown.
12. Miamogue Lagoon, Aquebogue.
13. Brush’s Creek, Laurel.
14. James Creek, Mattituck.
15. Little Creek, Cutchogue.
16. Richmond Creek, Peconic.
17. Goose Creek, Southold.
18. Jockey Creek, Southold.
19. Corey Creek Inlet, Southold.
20. Cedar Beach Inlet, Southold.
21. Sebonac Creek, Southampton.
22. Fresh Pond, Southampton. 23. North Sea Harbor, North Sea

Eight of these are in the SoutholdVOICE area. Some sites, for example Deep Hole, Mattituck, never made it onto the county’s list of permit applications. Cedar Beach Inlet is home to the Cornell Marine Learning Center, which has a multi-million dollar state grant to cultivate SPAT, the baby scallops with which they hope to revitalize the Peconic Bay scallop industry. The blockage of the Cedar Beach Inlet by the April 15th nor’easter, which ripped off a part of the beach (where the piping plover were supposed to nest) and spread a huge sandbar across the entrance extending far into Peconic Bay, where it forms an uncharted hazard to navigation. The Cornell boat was forced to relocate to the Port of Egypt marina, far from where it is needed.

Author: Paul Birman

(Ed: be sure to check out VOICE Video’s show on Dredging, on the Science channel)

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