WESTERLY — Town officials say they are encouraged by recent conversations with federal officials about a planned project to dredge Winnapaug Pond and improve its water quality by planting eelgrass.
Lisa Pellegrini, director of the town's Department of Development Services, learned Tuesday that the project could result in the removal of as much as 80,000 cubic yards of sediment that is believed to slow water flow, harm water quality, and impede watercraft. "This is really good news," she said, referring to the volume of material; a more exact estimate will not become clear until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes its design of the project.
In communication with the Army Corps, Pellegrini said she also learned that while the primary focus of the project will be eelgrass restoration, some of the dredged material, if deemed suitable by state environmental agencies, will be used for beach restoration in Misquamicut.
Pellegrini received the update and new details less than one day after the Westerly Town Council voted 5-2 to use $119,000 of town funds to meet a 35% local, non-federal match required by the Army Corps for the design portion of the project. An additional 35% local, non-federal match, which is estimated at $855,520, will be required for the actual work. The state Coastal Resources Management Council plans to seek the $855,520 from the state General Assembly and Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Town and state officials have discussed the need to dredge the approximately 475-acre pond for decades. The last known dredge, aside from a small one of 8,000 cubic yards in 2018, occurred in the 1960s. The town recently halted efforts on a plan to dredge 24,500 cubic yards of material from the pond, financed by a $2 million federal Natural Resources Conservation Service grant released in response to Superstorm Sandy. The storm, which struck in 2012, is believed to have deposited sand from Misquamicut beaches into the pond. The NRCS grant has expired.
The decision to stop work on the Superstorm Sandy project came when town officials became convinced that it would never qualify for a permit from CRMC. Meanwhile, town officials learned that the state coastal council was working with the Army Corps on a different dredge project.
On Monday the Town Council discussed whether to support the dredge project, and the scientific basis for it. Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr., who is executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association, noted that a short ban on shellfishing in the pond was imposed by the state Department of Environmental Management in July, and that Dunes Park Beach in Misquamicut was closed to swimmers. In both instances, there were high bacteria counts.
Cooke questioned the economic effect of a potential long-term ban on swimming along a larger stretch of the Misquamicut coastline. The town relies on a share of revenue from parking at Misquamicut State Beach, and on the state hotel tax, Cooke noted. Local meal and beverage tax revenue, and the local hotel tax, are also closely linked to tourism.
"What would Westerly do if we had weekends in 2020 or 20201 where we had to shut down the beaches?" he asked.
While the project being contemplated by CRMC and the Army Corps would be focused on restoring eelgrass, Town Manager Mark Rooney said the dredging would have the secondary benefit of improving the pond for watercraft. He also noted the significant tax revenue derived from homes located on the pond.
"If we do nothing I think the risk is what Councilor Cooke said. That is apparently the future, and you have a great deal of assessed valuation, Grand List, connected to the pond being healthy. So we have our tax base at risk," Rooney said.
Pellegrini said the dredge could be one part of efforts to improve the pond's water quality and might help leverage grant funds to study the source of nutrients that are believed to wash into the pond from its watershed.
Not all members of the council, including Sharon Ahern, who has a law degree, were convinced that dredging would solve water quality problems.
"I'm sure it seems odd coming from a lawyer who has practiced environmental and maritime law, but I really do not think there is a direct nexus between the bacterial count and this restoration dredge project, so I don't think we are affecting the value of the homes down there per se," Ahern said.
It appears, she added, that Winnapaug Pond is filling up with silt as part of a natural process. When she worked for the Watch Hill Conservancy, Ahern said, she warned that Napatree Point could become submerged as a result of storms despite efforts to protect it by erecting snow fences in the winter or building up the dunes.
Ahern and Councilor Karen Cioffi voted against providing the $119,000, which will be taken from a fund that town officials established years ago to save up for a dredging project.
Council President Christopher Duhamel, who voted in favor of the allocation, said the DEM wants the town to take steps to improve the pond's water quality. "DEM has a laser focus on Winnapaug Pond and the water quality. They want to see action by the town," he said.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno said the dredge project appears to be necessary but also asked for a statement from an expert on how often the pond must be dredged.
John Ornberg, a resident who frequently fishes in Winnapaug Pond, noted that the Army Corps told The Sun in October that the breachways it constructed, including the one at Winnapaug Pond, are associated with "increased rate of sedimentation in the ponds, mainly in the form of flood tidal shoals that continually expand and change shape as material from the beaches is carried into and deposited in the ponds."
The solution, Ornberg said, might be to redesign the breachways. Ornberg also noted that town crews collect water that pools up on Atlantic Avenue in the summer and discharge it into the pond. He said the shellfish closure occurred shortly after one of the stormwater discharges into the pond.
Duhamel, Cooke, Giorno and Councilors William Aiello and Brian McCuin voted in favor of using the town funds for the Army Corps' design work.