YARMOUTH, Maine — In the warmer months, low tides leave docks and boats sitting cockeyed in what looks like a giant mud pit, not a marina.
The harbor’s mooring field is supposed to be 6 feet deep at low tide, according to federal navigation standards, while the navigation channel should be a depth of 8 feet.
Neither comes close.
Most days the channel is down to less than 2 feet, impeding safe navigation, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And the situation is likely getting worse, as silt continues to build up in the river, which hasn’t been dredged since the mid-1990s.
But without federal funding for a $3 million dredging project, residents might end up footing the bill or potentially losing the town’s fishing industry and businesses that boast a state economic impact of about $25 million, according to a 2008 study by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
“I’m not rushing to have the town take that on, but we have to be having the conversation locally that we need to be thinking about that as a possible last best option,” said Town Manager Nat Tupper.
Despite this dire picture, town officials and business owners remain hopeful that federal funding will come through. One glimmer of hope came late last week.
The Army Corps’ navigation section, which Tupper has been working with over the years to develop the project, distributed a public notice Feb. 28, announcing a plan to remove 60,000 cubic yards of sediment from about 22 acres of the Royal River.
Even with the announcement, however, the project is still missing the key component: money.
In a strange twist of fate, now that the project is “shovel-ready” with plans from the Army Corps, Yarmouth is in line to receive funding as a result of federal post-Hurricane Sandy relief moving into New York and Connecticut, Tupper said.
Those funds displace maintenance dredging funds for smaller projects, opening up the possibility for the Yarmouth project to be funded by the end of the federal budget discussion.
“We’re a little bit more optimistic than we were last week,” Tupper said.
The new funding has also piqued the interest of Maine’s congressional delegation, with independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree meeting with town officials, fishermen and businesses owners last week to talk about dredging the harbor.
Town Council Chairman Steve Woods said both King and Pingree were enthusiastic about working to do what they can to get the dredging done, and that the town has also received support from Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
“It was really the sole focus of the meetings,” Woods said. “We all recognize the importance of the Royal River and the harbor, and we recognize the significant economic impact on the restaurants, the marina and the jobs associated with that.
“We hope the federal government will do its part and handle its responsibility,” he said. “And we’re hopeful that with the support of our congressional delegation that our requests will be met and we will get the assistance we need for our community.”
The harbor is home to 16 lobstermen, two boat yards and a restaurant, all of which need the dredging project, Woods said.
Deborah Delp, president of the Yankee Marina and Boatyard, which employs 45 people, said if the project doesn’t get done, her business will have to close.
“This [project] is absolutely essential for the viability of my company and all the companies on the river,” she said. “Without the river, I can’t run the kind of business I run. … I wouldn’t own a boat yard on a river that needs to be dredged again.”
Yankee Marina, started by Delp’s father 48 years ago, conducts costly dredging near its docks regularly, just as land-based businesses repair their parking lots.
She said although Yankee digs out its portion of the harbor, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so because of the silt piling up.
“We dig out our part of the harbor, but it’s so high now that it slides right back into the hole,” Delp said. “My accountant calls the dredging our curse.”
The harbor has been dredged at least somewhat regularly using federal money for the last 142 years, and it’s well overdue for another clean-out, Tupper said.
Up until recently, the town was able to get funding for dredging through earmarking, but with rule changes Congress no longer has the ability to get funding specifically for the Royal River.
If the dredging happens soon, Tupper said, he has suggested the town consider tying it to the potential dam removal project to maximize efficiency and to minimize environmental disturbance. But the idea is still in flux, with aesthetic, historic preservation, water quality and other factors still to be considered.
“There’s a potential to link the two and say, rather than have the Army Corps dredging and the [Environmental Protection Agency] at odds with each other, they can work together and take care of all the issues at once,” he said.
“We’ve tried to make the link, but quite frankly, we’re not pushing very hard, because it’s probably not going to happen.”
If the federal funding doesn’t come through, Tupper said the town may have to consider a bond for the project, noting that it might be able to work on the project incrementally over a long-term period to avoid steep upfront costs.
“Either do it or lose irretrievable business, marine culture and environment around the area,” he said, adding that he and the council will continue to pursue all options before considering a bond.
“We’re the Yarmouth Clippers. The river is a major piece of who we are. It’s a very important piece of what we’re about. … We’re not ready to throw in the towel yet.”