Matt Ridgway, general manager of the Chebeague Transportation Co., has written the Army Corps of Engineers to request dredging at the town landing to prevent the Independence – the ferry from Yarmouth to Chebeague Island – from running aground at extreme low tides. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Chebeague Islander Courtney Doughty is used to planning her life around the ferry schedule and dealing with the inconveniences that sometimes come with island life.

But now, when the tide is low and there isn’t enough water for the ferry to reach the island, she and other residents are left scrambling to adjust work and school schedules and worrying about getting to the mainland quickly during an emergency.

In the past six months, ferry runs between Great Chebeague Island and Cousins Island in Yarmouth have been canceled nearly two dozen times because it is not safe for the ferry to go through a channel that has filled in with silt and eelgrass since it was last dredged nearly two decades ago.

“As commuters, we have to make decisions whether to stay over in hotels to complete our workday or arrive to work on time, or take personal time to leave work early,” Doughty said.

After years of study, the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a project to dredge the channel, but both town officials and the project manager say it may be another year before federal funding is available to clear it to a depth safe for boats to operate during low tide.

“It’s already a year too late and now we’re looking to wait who knows how much longer,” said Matt Ridgway, general manager of the Chebeague Transportation Co. “We’re really starting to get concerned. It’s going to have even more of an impact on the community.”

Since last August, Chebeague Transportation has canceled 21 ferry runs during low tides because of concern the boat would become stuck in the mud or hit the abandoned fishing gear that litters the channel near the town’s Stone Wharf. Ridgway said cancellations will become frequent as the channel continues to silt in and the town waits for the dredging project to begin.

“The disruptions already are severe. School schedules must be revised so teachers can get home when boats must be canceled. Commuters must leave work early or arrive late due to these cancellations,” Ridgway wrote this month in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers. “When we are forced to remain tied up because of low water, the Chebeague EMS has had to transfer patients to the mainland using a boat that must travel 10 miles into Portland instead of the mile and a quarter we travel to our normal mainland landing.”

While the Chebeague Transportation ferry landing at Stone Wharf is a short run to Cousins Island in Yarmouth, the emergency responders use a different dock on the southern end of the island.

Recently, an islander experienced a “very serious” medical emergency at a time the ferry could not run because of low tide, Ridgway said. A rescue boat from Long Island was able to take the patient from the the Casco Bay Lines dock on Great Chebeague Island directly to Portland, but that takes more time, he said.

“It could be a life-threatening situation very easily,” Ridgway said. That patient, who was not identified, survived.

Chebeague Island, which became Maine’s newest town when it seceded from Cumberland in 2007, is about 3 miles long and a mile wide, depending on the tides and whom you ask. It has a year-round population of 350 and is a 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland.

Islanders depend on the ferry to get to the mainland for work, school, appointments and supplies. During emergencies, the ferry transfers patients between ambulances on the island and mainland.

The Stone Wharf is the only feasible landing spot on the island for the 56-foot ferry operated by Chebeague Transportation Co. The wharf and approach channel were made in the 1800s for businesses that brought people in at high tide. The town of Cumberland, which included the island at the time, acquired the wharf in the 1920s. In the 1960s, a water taxi company began ferrying people from Chebeague to Cousins Island year-round.

“At that time, they did the first dredge in my memory,” said Donna Miller Damon, who chairs the Chebeague Island Board of Selectmen.

Donna Damon chairs the Board of Selectmen for Chebeague Island and is collections manager for the Museum of Chebeague History, in background. Dredging at the town docks is needed to keep the Independence – the ferry from Yarmouth to Chebeague Island – from running aground at extreme low tides. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The town of Cumberland did a private maintenance dredge every 10 years to keep the channel open. But when the island seceded from Cumberland, paying the entire cost of a dredge just wasn’t an option anymore, Damon said.

“This little town couldn’t afford to do that every 10 years,” she said.

Anticipating the need for a dredge by 2012, town officials in late 2008 reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers about the project. That started a yearslong process of studying the project and environmental impacts. And during that time, silt and eelgrass continued to fill in the channel, creating conditions that are now dangerous for boats at low tide.

“We just can’t operate when there’s not enough water,” Ridgway said.

The Army Corps of Engineers now has a recommended plan for the project and is taking public comment, but town officials are still waiting to find out if federal funding for the project will be available this year. Recent information the town received from the Army Corps indicated that other projects could be pushed ahead of the Chebeague Island dredge.

“That’s when we started getting worried that it would be another whole year,” Damon said. “The federal government only releases so much money for projects. We understand the resources are limited, but we figure we’ve waited quite a long time and now it’s really impacting people’s everyday life.”

Chebeague Island resident Kendra McKinnon disembarks the passenger ferry Independence at the town landing. Dredging is needed to keep the ferry from running aground at extreme low tides. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Justin Poirier, the town administrator, says Chebeague Island has to wait for the Army Corps of Engineers to green-light the project, regardless of how strongly islanders feel about the need for it to be done as soon as possible.

“We’re hopeful it will still happen this fall,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of the Army Corps at this point. It’s an expensive undertaking. It would be over $1 million to do on our own and this town just doesn’t have the capacity to do that.”

PLANNING FOR DREDGING

Mark Habel, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said it’s possible the project could be undertaken this fall and winter. If that doesn’t happen, it would be done in 2022-23, he said.

“Certainly the shoaling situation at Great Chebeague Island weighs on these decisions. However, the Section 107 authority for USACE small navigation projects is budgeted nationally and is often oversubscribed year to year,” Habel said in an email. “Once the report reviews are completed we can get a better handle on budgeting for final design and construction of the project.”

The Great Chebeague Island Navigation Improvement Project would establish a channel 10 feet deep at low tide and 100 feet wide and extending about 1,200 feet from deep water west of Great Chebeague Island to the Stone Wharf. It would be widened alongside the wharf to 150 feet for maneuvering ferry boats.

The passenger ferry Independence is tied to the dock at the town landing in Chebeague Island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Approximately 34,000 cubic yards of mixed gravel, sand and silt will be removed from the project area using a mechanical dredge, according to an Army Corps of Engineers overview of the proposed project. The material, which was determined to be suitable for ocean disposal, will be loaded onto scows and towed about 15 miles south to a site designated for dredged material.

An essential fish habitat assessment determined that about 47,195 square feet of eelgrass habitat will be permanently lost as a result of the dredging of the channel. The Army Corps plans to mitigate this loss of habitat by restoring 1.7 acres of eelgrass elsewhere within Maine waters.

The project will take three to four months to complete and will be done between October and April once funding becomes available. Before it can be done, the public and technical reviews of the project currently underway need to be complete and approval needs to be secured through the state, Habel said. The town and Army Corps of Engineers must also execute a project partnership agreement.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates the dredging project will cost about $2 million. The town is responsible for 10 percent of that cost up front – about $200,000 – and must prove it has that money available before construction begins.

The town has already saved $100,000 toward the initial payment, which is due when the town signs a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers for the project. At a Jan. 26 town meeting, residents will vote on a request to allocate $150,000 from the undesignated fund balance for the project.

Damon said the rest of the money the town will owe – likely between $200,000 and $250,000 – is due at the end of the project. The town will have the option to pay that off over 30 years, but town leaders have not yet decided how it will be paid. Damon said she has heard no local opposition to the project.

‘ALARMING WATER DEPTHS’

Ridgway, from Chebeague Transportation Co., said the channel has filled in “very noticeably” over the past eight years. The company has done its own surveys of the channel bottom using weighted lines to assess the depth and decided not to run the ferry when the tide is a foot or more lower than the average low tide. Low tides can drop an additional 2 feet depending on the lunar cycle.

The water at the ferry landing is now less than 5 feet deep at the lowest low tides, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Chebeague ferry needs at least 5 1/2 feet of water to stay above the bottom, let alone avoid other obstacles.

“It got to a point last winter we were seeing alarming water depths. We were pushing mud at that tide,” Ridgway said, describing tides more than a foot below average.

The cancellation of ferry trips began at a time the company was already limiting ferry trips and the number of passengers because of the coronavirus pandemic. To cut costs and maintain the resiliency of operations, the company is only using one crew per day, Ridgway said. That limits ferry operations to a 12-hour period, with the last trip leaving from the mainland at 6:15 pm.

The ferry company currently runs nine trips per day when there are no cancellations. To maintain social distancing, capacity is reduced to 32 passengers. The company is only using one of its two boats, the 56-foot Independence, which Ridgway said has the same depth as its 52-foot ferry but is large enough to accommodate social distancing.

Doughty, the island resident who teaches at a school on the mainland, said the low-tide cancellations impact commuters leaving the island, but also commuters coming from the mainland to work on Great Chebeague Island. The island school and day care have both closed early a couple of times and will have to open late in the future because of low tides, she said.

Doughty said the impact on emergency transports is alarming and she’s grateful the Long Island rescue has been quick to help when needed.

“It’s frightening that if my child needs a rescue in the middle of the night and it happens to be low tide, our rescue isn’t available,” she said. “You have to hope Long Island is available.”

At Island Commons, the seven-bed residential care facility on Great Chebeague Island, administrator Amy Rich and her management team meet every Monday to review the staffing schedule and ferry cancellations. With nine staff members who live on the mainland, they now have to strategically plan around cancellations to make sure they have enough staff on duty.

At times, staff members will come in early and work longer shifts so their co-workers can catch the ferry back to the mainland. Island Commons has also hired a water taxi, which costs $125 and is a new expense for the facility.

“The dredging project needs to happen so we can get back to a normal process,” Rich said.

Ridgway said the uncertainty around when the dredging will happen has been disheartening and there is no doubt ferry cancellations will become more frequent the longer it is delayed. He has been talking to school officials about ferry cancellations on two days in March and one day in April, which will cause students and teachers to arrive late.

“Living on an island is never convenient,” said Ridgway, who lives on the island. “It’s gotten significantly more inconvenient for people.”


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