Put-In Creek dredging project shelved

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jul 23, 2010 - 05:31 PM

A project to dredge Mathews County’s Put-In Creek and create a turning basin as a way to encourage visitors to come to the county by boat was shelved because of the impact dredging would have on wetlands.

Photo: Lush sea grasses surround the small county-owned dock on Put-In Creek behind the Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewage treatment plant in Mathews Court House. A proposal to dredge the creek and create a turning basin for boats once the treatment plant is removed has been dropped because of the wetlands. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

Lush sea grasses surround the small county-owned dock on Put-In Creek behind the Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewage treatment plant in Mathews Court House. A proposal to dredge the creek and create a turning basin for boats once the treatment plant is removed has been dropped because of the wetlands. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

Adrian Jennings, an environmental scientist with the Norfolk District Army Corps of Engineers, said that the wetlands in the creek qualify as a special aquatic site, with a shallow water habitat that is "of the highest quality."

Wetlands don’t belong to individuals or even to Mathews County, said Jennings, so in weighing a request for a project that will destroy them, the Corps has to decide whether the applicant’s need is greater than the value of the wetlands as a public resource.

"It can be an interesting challenge," he said. "We have to decide whether they have opted for the least damaging practicable alternative."

In the case of Put-In Creek, said Jennings, the county looked at three options—dredging at one of two different depths, -3 or -5 feet, or putting mooring buoys downstream near Town Point Landing and encouraging boaters to bring dinghies up to the existing county dock in Put-In Creek.

"The deeper option had the greatest degree of wetland impacts," said Jennings.

Project managers have to look at wetlands projects first from the perspective of avoiding environmental impacts, said Jennings, then from various other perspectives, such as the economic impact. If environmental impacts can’t be avoided, they should be minimized, and if they can’t be minimized, they have to be mitigated, with new wetlands created to offset the loss.

"If you can still satisfy the basic need—to provide boaters access to downtown Mathews for commerce," said Jennings, "I would recommend going for the lesser impacts."

Jennings said that was what he would recommend to the top-level administrator for the Norfolk District, who would make his final decision based on Jennings’ recommendation. If the county were to apply for a permit and it was denied administratively, Jennings said the denial could be appealed at the division level in New York City.

Wetlands can be mitigated at a cost of around $10 to $14 per square foot lost during the construction process, said Jennings. If the deepest option for dredging the creek were used—minus 5 feet—it would destroy 51,150 square feet of wetlands, or just over an acre, and result in mitigation costs of approximately $614,000, calculated at $12 per square foot.

On top of that would be the dredging cost of around $900,000, calculated at $40 per cubic yard for 22,422 cubic yards, along with costs for permits, for installing mooring facilities, and for maintaining the dredged channel over at least a 10-year period.

Thus, just dredging and mitigation would cost in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, while the entire project, according to the study conducted by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, would cost around $2.08 million.

"When the group reconciled that number, it said option one was off the table," said Jennings, speaking of the committee appointed by the Mathews Board of Supervisors to examine the issue. "A vision is one thing, but it’s whether or not you can afford it. We all have to deal with that kind of reality."

The option of dredging to minus 3 feet would be about half as expensive, according to the VHB report, but would still destroy valuable wetlands. The minus-3-foot option "was our best hope," said Mathews County Administrator Steve Whiteway, but even at that depth, the Corps and VMRC "advised that the destruction of vegetated wetlands … would make this project nearly impossible to permit by their agencies."

"If those guys are not supportive," said Whiteway, "we’ve got a tough row to hoe … It became a choice of continuing to expend public monies and time to push for a solution that was most likely not feasible with current environmental laws and thinking, and moving on to another possibility—what can be done without dredging."