Channel Dredging Project Begins Amid Timing Concerns

OCEAN CITY – A significant dredging project of the main channel in the Isle of Wight Bay behind Ocean City is underway amid questions about its timing and potential effects on habitat, but federal officials this week offered assurances the work is routine and a wide variety of environmental factors were considered before it began.

The federal Army Corps of Engineers last week began the first phases of a significant maintenance dredging project of the navigation channel in the Isle of Wight Bay from just north of 8th Street to around 33rd Street. When completed, the project will dredge roughly 14,000 cubic yards of material from the channel and hydraulically pump it on to the beach at 33rd Street.

The operation was in full swing this week with heavy equipment set up at the point just off the western end of 33rd Street. The dredged material is being pumped across the breadth of the island, which, at 33rd Street is one of its widest areas, until it reaches Coastal Highway. From there, the pipe is fed through the existing storm drains under Coastal Highway and reappears on the eastern side and continue east where the dredged material, largely consisting of fine sand, is being pumped onto the beach at 33rd Street.

The work began last week and has been going on around the clock since. At night, the dredge area in the bay is lit with bright lights just as the beach at the opposite end of the operation is. On Tuesday afternoon, the two pipes on the business end of the operation were spewing heavy volumes of the dredged material onto the beach at 33rd Street, turning the beach and the ocean nearby a distinctive dark color and creating a free buffet for hundreds of seagulls.

Officials on hand said the dredged material is mostly just fine sand and other organic material, which will quickly be indoctrinated into its new location. Similar routine maintenance dredging projects are done throughout the resort area every couple of years and the dredged material is often placed on beaches where it serves the dual function of removing it from where it isn’t wanted and placing it where it is needed most. The beach at 33rd Street is typically narrow and becomes a trouble spot during storms and high tide events.

“I know it’s not the most appealing sand for the beach right now, but it bleaches out in the sun in a couple of days and no one will know the difference,” said Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Bob Blama this week. “It will be spread out in an area from about 32nd Street to 34th Street mostly down in the surf zone in a part of the beach that traditionally needs replenishing.”

Currently, the navigation channel is authorized to a depth of six feet and a width of 125 feet from the Inlet to a point just south of 8th Street, then a width of 75 feet heading into the Isle of Wight Bay. According to the scope of the plan, material is being removed to the project depth of six feet plus two feet of allowable over-depth in the area from 8th to 33rd streets.

Prior to undertaking the dredging project, the Army Corps conducted a thorough review of potential impacts and determined the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not warranted. However, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) documentation addressing potential environmental impacts of the dredging and placement operation was prepared.

A review of the project, along with evaluations of similar dredging projects in Isle of Wight Bay in the past, indicate the ongoing work will not adversely affect endangered or threatened species or their critical habitats. In addition, the Army Corps’ advanced study determined the project complies with the Maryland Coastal Zone Management Program and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

While few questions have been raised about the scope of the project or its methods, some issues about its timing have been raised. In the private sector, all maintenance dredging projects in the area have to be wrapped up by April 1 because of concerns about the return of certain essential species.

“Everybody else is supposed to stop dredging on April 1 because of the movement into the area of the summer flounder and horseshoe crab mating and spawning,” said Dr. Roman Jessien of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. “It’s a good time-of-the-year closure. We’re just trying to find some answers why it applies to the private sector and not the federal government.”

Jessien suggested the data on summer flounder and other species vary throughout the different areas of the coastal bays.

“Some data suggests summer flounder don’t use the channels,” he said. “When they come into the bay, they use the shallow areas and not the channels. But that data was collected in the southern coastal bays and the northern coastal bays are a little different. There, the data suggests they use all of the habitat.”

Meanwhile, Blama said the Army Corps took into careful consideration all of the potential impacts before embarking on the dredging project.

“We have done our due diligence before undertaking this project at this time, just as we do for all of our dredging projects,” he said. “There was an environmental assessment prepared and everything checked out okay. We need to do this every couple of years to maintain that channel and it has become pretty routine.”