By Angeljean Chiaramida
Below the ocean surface, there's a small mountain of sand waiting to be dredged.
That sand — 130,000 to 150,000 cubic yards — would come from the navigation channel at the mouth of the Merrimack River that the Army Corps of Engineers has been digging out every few years.
If you were to dump it all in downtown Newburyport, it would bury State Street from Market Square to High Street in a 35-foot-tall pile of sand.
No one owns that sand, but both Salisbury and Plum Island want it.
Next year, or perhaps the year after that, the dredgers will come and dig it out. The battle over who gets that sand has become contentious, and a corps spokesman says if the fight over it continues, it will delay the salvation that both communities are asking for — the delivery of a massive pile of sand to replenish the beach.
The mouth of the Merrimack River is a natural chokepoint for sand. Enormous sandbars form there, making it difficult for large boats to get through.
Since at least 1937, the corps has followed a routine of dredging a channel about every three years and depositing the sand far off shore, according to Ed O'Donnell, Chief of the Navagation Section in the corps' New England District Office.
But beginning around 1983, dredgers began to dump nearer and nearer to Plum Island's shore. The action nourished the beaches, undoing some of the damage caused by storms and natural erosion.
In 1996, dredged sand was deposited off Salisbury's beaches after the state — which owns Salisbury Beach — asked the corps to place the sand north of the river. In 1999, the Merrimack River's dredged sand cycled back for use at Plum Island, with a written agreement Salisbury would get sand again after the next dredging. That dredging was expected to take place around 2002.
But roughly coinciding with the nation's war on terrorists, the Army Corps of Engineers' annual budget has run into trouble. It's been pretty much level funded, O'Donnell said, preventing the tri-annual dredging of the Merrimack River mouth.
The lack of funding required the corps to prioritize its projects, O'Donnell said, which led the corps to take on projects primarily at the country's largest commerical ports. In New England, O'Donnell said, that's been in Boston and Portland, Maine harbors.
With dredging in the Merrimack River long overdue, the sand accumulations can lead to navigational problems. The hope is the $1.4 million Merrimack River dredging project will find funding in the next federal budget cycle late this year, and prevent further problems for Newburyport's small commercial and larger recreational uses of the river, O'Donnell said.
But federal budgets are dicey entities and Congress isn't always prompt about enacting them. Last year, the corps' hoped for $1.4 million for the Merrimack River dredge didn't make the budget. In addition, the corps didn't get its appropriation until January. Even if the corps gets all the money it needs in the coming budget for the Merrimack River project, it's possible the money won't be available until after the winter of 2009.
Who gets the sand?
When the sand does get dredged, some local officials and residents now hope much of it will be pumped directly onto the beach, and excess will be stockpiled for later use.
But the fate of the sand is turning into a nasty battle between neighboring seaside communites, even though local officials in Salisbury, Newbury and Newburyport agreed late last year to work together on the erosion issue and not fight over sand.
The original battle over who has the right to the sand erupted last summer, encouraged by Plum Island beachfront resident Robert Connors and members of his Plum Island Beach Association. During a June 2007 interview, Connors said the jetties — built by the Army Corps in 1881 — interfere with the natural north-to-south hydraulics of sand movement along the coast. As a result, he argued sand dredged from the Merrimack River should never go to Salisbury — which is north of the river — but always be used to augement Plum Island, south of the river.
The north to south movement of sand along this portion of the coast is something accepted by coastal environmental officials at both the state and local levels. But authorities interviewed for this series refuse to adhere to the principle that migrating sand belongs to any specific community.
As a natural course of events, sand on barrier beaches moves, according to both Salisbury Conservation Commission Chairman Tom Hughes and Coastal Zone Management Geologies Rebecca Haney. It usually moves from north to south, they said, but when it leaves, it has no allegence to where it came from or where it might be headed.
Connors has said he believes the north jetty — on the Salisbury side of the Merrimack River's mouth — traps sand naturally moving south, preventing it from making its way to Plum Island to replenish naturally depleting sand from its beaches. The south jetty also hurts Plum Island, he said, because it catches sand washing down the Merrimack River itself before it gets to its hypothetically intended destination — Plum Island — where Plum Island advocates believe it historically accumulated.
Last summer, Newbury's Conservation Commission filed as an intervener to remove Salisbury from being eligible to receive the sand. After learning of the appeal, Salisbury Selectman Jerry Klima, with Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington, worked to solve the problem before it turned into a distasteful and expensive lawsuit.
After meetings between officials involved, Harrington agreed Plum Island should get the sand when and if the corps is able to dredge the harbor this time round. But, the agreement also preserved Salisbury eligibility to acquire sand from the corps future periodic dredging.
The sand was to be dumped in the waters off Plum Island, close enough to the beach to encourage "renourishment."
Many in Salisbury wondered why, but for Harrington the issue is fundamental.
"They need the sand more than we do right now. And, we got $1 million worth of sand from the state this summer that stabilized our situation temporarily," Harrington said, referring to the state bringing in 20,000 cubic yards of sand to shore up damage at Salisbury Beach caused by last year's devastating Patriots Day storm. "Our whole approach to the erosion issue has been to be cooperative and approach this regionally. If we all can work cooperatively, we think we'll have a better chance of all winning in the end."
In addition, Harrington said, since Salisbury Beach is state owned, the state has the burden of funding erosion repair, prevention and beach maintenance. In Plum Island, he said, the town and individual home owners would have to pay a significant amouth of money to repair the current dangerous state of erosion on the island's beaches.
Klima, who has a year-round home in Salisbury and a beach home on Plum Island, also believes the state's role in Salisbury Beach's erosion issue, can leverage federal money for the area.
Both Harrington and Klima strongly avow that continued fights between towns over sand will not only hold up the permits needed for the corps to do the dredging, but also hold up current and future funding to help the erosion problem the communities are facing from state and federal agencies. Congressman John Tierney agreed to work on behalf of the region on this issue, Harrington said, but that support could depend on the region presenting a united front in the erosion battle, not battle each over shifting sand.
New battle erupts
In late February, Harrington had great hopes for the agreement he and Newbury town official signed. It had taken some convincing to get some more adamant Plum Island officials to go along with the concept of cooperation, he said, but the deal was struck and he felt it was a good one.
Connors did not. In mid March, his lawyer sent a letter to local, state and federal officials and agencies presenting arguments against Salisbury's eligibility for the sand. The letter said letting sand get dumped off Salisbury violated a state executive order that stated sand must be dumped downdrift from the place it is dredged. The letter said the group of "ten or more citizens" — of which only Connors has trhus far been named — would seek to prevent the sand from ever again being dumped off Salisbury Beach.
Connors said the letter was wrongly misinterpreted as a threat and was only really calling for a study. Klima argued it would only serve to hurt Plum Island by delaying the dredging. The Army Corps' O'Donnell agrees with Klima.
O'Donnell would like the corps to do a regional sediment study that stretches far beyond Salisbury and Newbury.
"The purpose of (a regional sediment managment study) is to determine sources of sediment that fill our Federal naviagon channels from upland areas and along shore areas," O'Donnell said. "Once we know the sources we can figure the best way to keep them out of our channels and decide the best areas to place what we do dredge on the adgacent beaches. ... We estimate we'd need about $250,000 to do the study that looks at the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire from the Annisquam River in the south to Hampton Harbor in the north."