2016-03-03 / Front Page

More sand, less business

City denied federal grant to dredge Saco River
By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO – Three dredging maintenance proposals submitted by the Army Corps of Engineers – two on the Saco River and one at Wood Island by Biddeford Pool – were denied federal funding by the Appropriations Committee for the 2016- 2017 work plan.

The projects are estimated to cost a combined $6 million – $4.2 million for the two Saco River projects and $1.8 million for Wood Island. By combining the projects, $300,000 would be saved in equipment mobilization costs. According to documents prepared by Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Craig Martin, the last maintenance of the entrance channel at Biddeford Pool was conducted in 1992.

Chrisine Ohman, grant writer and projects coordinator for the city of Biddeford, said that at first, she was “devastated” by the news, but didn’t feel as bad once she found out that very few projects in New England got funded at all.

“Unfortunately, the Appropriations Committee didn’t really fund anything in the state of Maine,” Ohman said.

Only two small projects in Maine were funded – a $500,000 project at Beal’s Island and $200,000 for Pig Island Gut. Ohman said there are more than 60 shallow draft rivers in Maine that require routine maintenance dredging.

“There is a tremendous amount of need but not a tremendous amount of resources,” Ohman said.

Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said the projects will be resubmitted in hopes that they will be approved for the Army Corps of Engineers 2017-2018 work plan.

“It would be a major setback if it was a permanent ‘no,’ but we’re going to go and update our information. Our game plan that we’re going to move forward with is to get funding for the next round,” Bennett said. “So all the work done to date is not going to be wasted. It’s usually a numbers game as we’re working on this.”

Last fall, the city calculated that the Saco River has a direct economic impact on the region of $22 million per year, or a total impact of nearly $55 million when a 2.5 multiplier effect is applied to capture ancillary impacts such as spending at restaurants and shopping. Fishing industries, marinas, the University of New England, research facilities, day sailing and kayaking are all river-related contributors to the economy, Ohman added, with 450 full-time jobs supported by the river.

However, Ohman said the economic impact of the Saco River needs to be recalculated because of additional development and economic growth being realized in the region. A new pier project at the University of New England and expansion of the Marine Science Center, the development proposal for 101-market rate apartments at Lincoln Hotel and a proposed expansion at Rumery’s Boat Yard for a transient boater marina, all could significantly increase the river’s impact on the economy, she added.

“This year, we’ll do the same process, put in the request, but we have a much larger story to tell with all the economic development occurring, Ohman said. “We have a much stronger story to tell.”

Bennett said officials from Biddeford and Saco are working with the state’s U.S. congressional delegation to try to get $1.5 million in surplus money from a Portland Harbor project that has been completed, to be reallocated toward a Saco River project.

“There is surplus money that was not used. We’re trying to see if we can get that money because literally, it will take an act of Congress,” Bennett said, “but we’re going to give it a shot. The surplus would allow us to do one of the three sites – the upper river, the mouth or Biddeford Pool.”

Project teams from Biddeford and Saco will meet with the Maine Dredge Team – a Maine Department of Transportation group – on March 7 to discuss strategies for getting the projects funded in the future.

Ohman said the river used to be used for commercial purposes much more frequently, especially at the height of the mills era. Now however, larger boats must wait until high tide to navigate the river because of shoaling that has made the river shallow over the past two decades. Some parts of the river can be as shallow as 4 feet, she added.

Ohman said the river is supposed to be navigable all the time, not just during high tide.

“We would have access to it all the time (if dredged), which is what we’re supposed to have now, it’s supposed to be navigable,” Ohman said. “It’s been a good 15 years from what I understand anecdotally from different sailors, since it’s been completely navigable.”

Despite missing this year’s round of funding, Ohman said she is optimistic that the dredging projects will eventually get funded by U.S. Congress.

“We know we’ll be the squeaky wheel as long as we have to be to get this addressed,” she said.

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