Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — NEWFANE — The yacht club members, tourism officials and marina owners that populated a public information meeting Thursday agree that harbor dredging is an investment worth making, but their effort to direct funding towards the infrastructure improvements is not yet ready to pull out of the piers.
A group of more than 50 people representing harbor groups stretching from Wilson to Brockport came to Newfane Town Hall to hear the preliminary findings of the Regional Harbor Dredging Management Plan update and offer their own information.
Orleans County Planning and Tourism Director Wayne Hale, who is leading the six-county project, said Friday that the input from yacht club members and marina owners is important in filling gaps in the preliminary plan, whether it comes from detailed studies or anecdotal stories.
”We need them for the plan to be comprehensive,” Hale said.
The new plan, which will be completed in 2013, covers 160 miles of Lake Ontario’s southern shores and will database and detail the need for dredging in 19 harbors in Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Cayuga and Oswego counties. The 2000 dredging management plan, which did not include harbors in Wilson, Olcott and Carlton, was not able to secure a consistent source of funding for dredging or a mechanism for locally-initiated harbor work.
”It went nowhere,” Frank Sciremammano, who is consulting the plan update, told meeting attendees. “Our harbors have silted in.”
That’s the case across the region, where previously high waters have declined to lows not seen in nearly fifty years. Sciremammano said a dredged Wilson harbor would be ideal for recreational boating at a depth of eight feet — the set up to the punchline that drew a round of knowing laughs. Sciremammano’s measurements have the harbor’s shallowest spot at just 4 feet and seven inches deep.
Those issues have an immediate economic impact for both boaters, harbor businesses and communities.
”We had boats running aground in June,” said Lisa Stephens, the commodore of the Wilson Yacht Club. “A $1,000 a day is being lost in diesel sales.”
The harbors in Wilson, Olcott and Carlton are similar in that they are federal projects with a sediment of sand and silt. In the preliminary plan, Sciremammano said each of the three harbors would ideally be dredged every five years, with 5,000 cubic yards of sediment removed and used for shoreline nourishment, construction or disposal in the open lake.
Often, the area in need of dredging is a single problem area.
”The problem (in the Oak Orchard River harbor) is only a 35 foot by 50 foot-wide sand bar, the rest is at least 10 feet deep,” John Brown, the fleet captain of the Oak Orchard Yacht Club. “It’s a one day project.”
Harbor officials said they are burdened by high costs and high testing standards that along with federal inaction prevent maintenance projects. State Department of Environmental Conservation official Ray Yacuzzo told the crowd that once dredging becomes a regular occurrence, pre-project work would be less onerous.
”The idea of dredging more often is that DEC would be more comfortable — and not as tough (with testing requirement),” Yacuzzo said. “You’d be testing much, much less with regular maintenance programs.”
The costs of a complete dredging project have not been determined at this stage in the update, but are agreed to be far less than the economic benefits of well-maintained harbors and the economic disaster that can happen when a harbor gets a reputation as a spot where boating is dangerous.
Mike Waterhouse, the sportfishing coordinator for the Orleans County Tourism Department, said that the plan estimates the cost of dredging all of the harbors on the American shores of the Great Lakes would cost only $400 million. That’s a small drop in the pond considering the federal government has a $8 billion fund for harbor work.
”Our goal isn’t to depend on federal funding unless it’s (coming on a regular basis),” Sciremammano said. “We’re doing this because it hasn’t come.”
Those funds, currently unexpended, would go mainly to commercial ports like Savannah, Wilmington and New York City.
”There’s a lot of unmet commercial needs ... if there is commercial tonnage, that’s the first qualifier,” said Josh Feldmann, Chief of Operations at the Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District. “As the Panama Canal is widened, boats coming to port will be deeper and wider.”
Other options, like teaming up to purchase and share dredging equipment in a manner similar to how towns in Orleans County share the use of a boom mower, are possible.
”A private contractor with a long-term contract could work,” Sciremammano said.
There is hope for federal funding. Hale said that by focusing on the long-term economic impacts of a lack of dredging, this effort should be more successful. The preliminary plan estimated that $57 million comes into the six counties directly from boats coming in to harbors; that does not include the economic boost to restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
”We want a systematic lakewide schedule of maintenance,” Hale said. “We will come up with harbor conditions, dredging plans, cost estimates and economic impacts.”
A second public information meeting is scheduled for Thursday in Sodus Point. The harbor dredging management plan, funded through a NYS Department of State Environmental Protection Fund grant, is expected to be complete in June.