MATHEWS COUNTY — On Haven Beach on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, trees are dying as the surrounding marshlands slowly convert into ponds.
As the sea continues to rise, salt from the Chesapeake Bay is more easily sprayed through the wind onto surrounding flora, destroying it. The marshes are also becoming more susceptible to invasive plant life that thrives on high-salinity waters.
That may soon change. On Nov. 22, the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission got permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up the approval process for coastal dredging projects as well as use the dug-up material to shore up the region’s rapidly eroding coast.
“We think there is an exhaustive list of beneficial reuses that have never even been contemplated in Virginia,” said Lewie Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. “There’s a whole management economy that will be developed around utilizing the dredge material for public benefit.”
Officials had argued the accelerated approval process, known as Section 408 categorical permission, was “in the public interest.” The Army Corps of Engineers’ decision will allow a list of projects on 17 waterways on the Middle Peninsula to begin. But with decreased federal funding available for dredging, completion of the projects will be dependent on state funding.
Besides stimulating economic development, the projects are a way to address sea level rise, “probably the greatest challenge facing rural coastal communities,” said Curt Smith, deputy director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission.
Sea level rise “touches everything in a coastal community. Every facet of life is impacted,” said Smith. “Water is the fabric of the community. It’s the reason why all of this is here to begin with.”
Section 408 approval
Dredging is the process of digging up dirt or sand on the bottom of bodies of water and transporting it offsite. That removal allows vessels to travel without risking scraping their underside on the land — in local parlance, “bumping bottom.”
The dredging of shallow water channels along Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore historically was carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District. But in 2010, federal dollars dried up due to changes in how the projects could be funded in the federal budget, making state and local governments pick up the slack.
As the dredging stopped, U.S. Coast Guard ships began to have trouble navigating certain waterways on the Middle Peninsula or installing federal navigation aids like buoys and beacons. In turn, recreational and commercial fishers stopped using those channels.
“When Congress was funding dredging, the light was green, boats could get in and out. When Congress defunded it, the light turned yellow, and we started talking with our local governments that it was going to be a major problem for commerce,” Lawrence said. “Once the channel markers are removed, it’s basically game over.”
The Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission ultimately enlisted the help of legislative and regulatory affairs shop Advantus Consulting. John Paul “J.P.” Woodley, a principal at the firm and a former Virginia deputy attorney general and secretary of natural and historic resources under Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government’s engineering consulting arm, to seek Section 408 permission for 17 projects on the peninsula. That would allow the region to move ahead more quickly with key dredging efforts, which previously would occur every decade or two.
“The 17 federal channels in the Middle Peninsula will not be subject to Section 408 categorical review, which will greatly expedite the federal review process leading to more efficient implementation of these projects,” minutes from a May 2021 MPPDC meeting note.
“The problem is that they were taking forever,” said Woodley. “They had encrusted it with bureaucratic barnacles that were slowing it down.”
Under the Section 408 approval, any dredging will still require an environmental impact review. But that process will be more streamlined, Lawrence said.
“Without this categorical exemption, the red tape that is associated with moving these projects forward is 500 pages of paper,” Lawrence said. ”But with the 408 exemption, we’ve got it down to 10.”
The Hole in the Wall
Although not in need of 408 permission, a dredging project the Middle Peninsula Planning District is working on is one example of the potential benefits.
The project would dredge 5,709 feet, or 18.8 acres, of the Hole in the Wall, a narrow channel off Haven Beach that has been virtually erased by sea level rise, along with the neighboring Rigby Island.
Under stable conditions, channels can maintain their shape by naturally funneling water with no obstruction, explained Smith.
But as sea level rises, waves override the channel and eventually destroy it, blocking passage for vessels.
“That’s why they called it Hole in the Wall, because it was this tiny little channel,” Smith said. “Once this island disappeared and you lost a link in the chain, the tidal flow gets dispersed. The channel starts to shoal.”
Mathews County has installed two piles of rock a few feet from the shore of Haven Beach to act as breakwaters to reduce the waves’ impact against the coast. Clean sand dredged from the Hole in the Wall could further reinforce the shoreline, creating more land for recreational users and stability to mitigate flooding. Other dredged material like mud can be used for other shoreline conservation technologies, such as concrete for living shoreline projects.
“We got to think differently,” Smith said. “It’s a win, win, win, win in so many ways.”
The goals of Middle Peninsula officials are dependent on how much money they can get.
In 2018, legislation carried by Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, created the Virginia Waterway Maintenance Grant Fund to provide money for dredging to local governments and regional bodies like planning district commissions.
The Virginia Port Authority oversees the fund. The state’s current budget puts $5 million toward dredging projects in the counties of Accomack, Gloucester, Middlesex, Northampton and Mathews, as well as projects undertaken through the Middle Peninsula Municipal Dredging Program. An amendment for an additional $5 million next year is tied up in ongoing budget negotiations between Republicans and Democrats.
“This is a situation of neglect that is only getting worse,” said Lewis while advocating for the fund’s creation during the 2018 session.
The fund is intended to prioritize those projects that will have the most economic impacts, Lawrence explained. For example, a project that will benefit the commercial industry and maritime contractors, or “gray boats,” will be prioritized over one for recreational sailboat users, or “white boats.”
The Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission is creating a municipal program to funnel that money into projects. A public program, by not seeking a profit, can cut down on millions in dredging costs that would be incurred by using private contractors, Lawrence said.
One analysis by the MPPDC found that “it is 29% less costly to dredge the channels through a regionally operated program than through contracting with private sector dredging contractors.”
The Hole in the Wall project would be contracted out. But the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission is looking to purchase a dredging vessel at a cost of about $2 million, which would allow it to do three to five projects a year on its own, Smith said.
Officials say dredging is another tool to deal with the changes being brought on by sea level rise, one that could help residents avoid being forced to relocate from the coast.
“We’re tired of seeing maps just showing us going underwater like all hope’s lost,” Smith said. “Let’s make these places as productive and safe to live and work as long as possible. It’s not time to walk away.”
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