Sunday, December 8, 2013
By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel
FARMINGTON - Federal officials say requirements for a riverbank stablization project on the Sandy River that could affect endangered Atlantic salmon are not unique, despite assertions to the contrary from local officials.
Farmington has been trying to get permission and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect Whittier Road by stabilizing the bank of the Sandy River, which has been eroding steadily since Tropical Storm Irene caused a major collapse about a year ago.
The federal agency won't approve the project, however, until the town produces a report known as a biological assessment predicting the impact of the project on the salmon, which use the river as a critical spawning habitat.
Rick Jones, a consultant who was hired by the town to draft an assessment outline, said last week that Farmington is "treading new ground" and may be the first community on the East Coast to create an assessment for this kind of project.
The sentiment, echoed by Town Manager Richard Davis and Public Works head Denis Castonguay, has been used to illustrate a perception that the federal agency is not being clear about what information it wants in the assessment.
Dennis Pinkham, spokesman for the federal agency, said that biological assessments are not new, and have been required since the Endangered Species Act was first passed in 1973.
"FEMA has provided the town with three examples for projects in critical salmon habitat and guidelines from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the content of this type of document," Pinkham said Friday. He said guidelines "are clear and are available."
Davis agreed that the biological assessment is not new, and that a single example had been provided.
"I stand corrected," he said. "It's not totally without precedent."
However, he maintained that the agency has been unclear about the details.
"Maybe it's not unique, but we haven't been given a lot of firm guidance on what to provide," Davis said.
Davis also said that a long history of biological assessments should have resulted in an outline being available from the federal government.
"I don't understand, if they've done this several times, why are they asking us to provide an outline?" he said. "Just tell us what you want and we'll see if we can give it to you."
Pinkham and Davis agreed that the project is the first to trigger a required biological assessment on the Sandy River since salmon critical habitat was first protected in 2009.
According to Pinkham, the town submitted the outline Aug. 28, and the agency provided feedback Tuesday.
"This is the first step in the process, and it is on track," Pinkham said.
Pinkham said that the target date for a draft of the assessment is early November.
The $277,171 bank stabilization project, first drafted by Jones in fall of 2011, could not be completed this season because of the concerns about the salmon.
Because work in the river can't be done during the salmon's spawning season, which begins Saturday, the project is not expected to be completed until July 2013.
Davis and Castonguay have said that they expect the river to wash out the road before then.
School buses and oil delivery trucks have been rerouted to avoid the threatened portion of the road.
Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: