A plan to dredge Wells Harbor that has approval from the state and the Army Corps of Engineers could be in danger of losing $3.5 million in federal funds because a federal agency is concerned that it could harm endangered shorebirds.
Town officials in Wells confirmed Wednesday that the long-awaited dredging project, to be funded mostly with federal relief money for damage done last year by Hurricane Sandy, is being challenged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agency, which could not be reached for comment late Wednesday, has expressed concerns that the dredging could hurt Wells Beach’s piping plover population and the federally endangered Roseate tern.
Town officials say the agency’s concerns are unwarranted because the dredging wouldn’t start until Sept. 15, long after the piping plover’s nesting season ends.
“Dredging the harbor puts sand back on the beach and is good for tourism and for the piping plover habitat,” said Wells Selectman Bob Foley. “Come Sept. 15, the birds will be on their way south.”
He said the giant coastal storm last fall removed a huge amount of sand from Wells Beach and Drakes Island Beach and dumped it into the harbor, making it unsafe for mariners.
Foley, who has been involved with harbor dredging projects for 27 years, said a study in 2006 by Woodlot Alternatives showed no negative effects from a harbor dredging in 2000.
In 2007, the town applied for permission to dredge the harbor again. It got approval from the Maine DEP in 2010. The town applied for federal aid, and learned in February that it had qualified for $3.5 million.
The town then secured permission from nearly 300 beachfront property owners to temporarily lay dredge pipe across their land.
Town Manager Jonathan Carter said the Army Corps of Engineers was on the verge of putting the project out for bids when it got a letter in mid-July from the Fish and Wildlife Service asking it to suspend the project.
The agency expressed concerns about the piping plovers and began asking for a more formal, comprehensive environmental review that could take as long as six months.
The piping plover is listed as an endangered species in Maine and as a threatened species by the federal government.
The town doesn’t want the dredging to be delayed beyond this fall because it could lose the federal aid. Foley said the town has spent about $200,000 on permitting fees, and in June voters approved $450,000 — the town’s share for the dredging.
The project was set to run from Sept. 15 through March 31 to avoid the piping plovers’ nesting season, which typically begins in April.
“If we don’t dredge the harbor this fall, quite frankly we’ll have to close most of Wells Harbor next year,” Foley said, because it would be too dangerous to navigate.
The various parties, including a representative of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, met in late July but reached no agreement.
“This (project) should not have come as a surprise to anyone,” Carter said Wednesday. “We were chagrined to find out that there was opposition. We are, unfortunately, at a stalemate.”
Collins’ office is hopeful that the issue can be resolved soon.
“Recognizing the economic importance of this project to the town and the businesses that rely on the harbor for their operations, Senator Collins’ office has facilitated the dialogue between the Army Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in order to provide a timely solution that addresses all concerns,” Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley said Wednesday night.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: