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Newbury, Newburyport applaud federal funds for jetty repair

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2012
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The US Army Corps of Engineers this fall plans to begin repairs to the south jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River after $3.5 million in federal emergency funds was recently allotted for the project.

News of the funding, announced Feb. 8 by US Representative John F. Tierney, is being celebrated by area officials and residents who have strongly advocated for repairs to the south and north jetties in order to halt erosion of local beaches.

“People are very, very excited,’’ said Ron Barrett, president of the Plum Island Taxpayers Association.

The disrepair of the south jetty affects Plum Island, in Newbury and Newburyport, and that of the north jetty, Salisbury Beach.

“It’s really important to do this,’’ Barrett said, noting that the south jetty repairs will allow for a build-up of protective sand in front of homes that are “losing all their sand now because of breaches in the jetty.’’

The allotted money, drawn from the federal Disaster Relief Appropriations Act signed last December, falls short of the $5 million the Army Corps has estimated is needed to repair the south jetty.

But it will be at least enough to repair the section of the jetty closest to shore, which is the part of the structure residents in that area are most concerned about, said Edward O’Donnell, chief of the navigation section for the Corps New England district.

He said the agency is developing plans and specifications for the south jetty work, which will consist of reconfiguring the existing stones and adding others to restore the jetty to its original dimensions.

“We are working with the local communities on the specifics of how we are going to get the equipment there, and what properties we need to cross with that equipment so we can get the rights of entry from the landowners,’’ he said.

“Our hope is to go out to bid in June and start the work sometime in September,’’ O’Donnell said, estimating the project would take four to five months.

O’Donnell said the allotted funds might be enough to carry out the full south jetty project if the Corps receives favorable construction bids and is able to acquire stones at low cost from Seabrook Station.

The agency is exploring possible use of those stones, which were excavated during original construction of the nuclear plant. The availability of the stones was discovered and brought to the Corps’ attention by Barrett.

In the more likely event only part of the repairs can be undertaken now, O’Donnell said the Corps would seek to complete the project at a later date when additional money can be secured.

Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury officials have urged repairs to the jetties for several years, working through the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, which includes the three communities, area legislators, and members of three local organizations concerned with protecting the beaches.

During that time, the alliance has worked with the corps on a number of short-term measures to protect the beaches, including the 2010 project in which the Corps dredged the river and deposited the sand on much-eroded sections of the beaches. But group members have said repair of the jetties remains the long-term solution.

The alliance was disappointed last May when regional Army Corps officials informed them that due to lack of funding, the agency was putting on hold plans to repair the south jetty. In a planned sequence of projects supported by the alliance, the Corps had intended to repair the south jetty first and then the north jetty.

But last October, a delegation of local officials and legislators traveled to Washington in an effort to jump-start the bid for funding for the two projects.

The trip included meetings with a top Corps official and with Tierney, a Salem Democrat, and US Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown.

“I’m very pleased,’’ said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, who was on the October trip, of the recent funding allotment. “We left Washington feeling that we had made a good case. [The Corps] came back and the money was allocated. . . . There are a lot of details that have to be worked out, but the bottom line is that we got $3.5 million and that’s just wonderful.’’

O’Donnell said dredging or jetty repair projects in the Merrimack River would rank low on the Army Corps’ priority list under budgetary guidelines because very little commercial cargo is transported on the river. But he said the south jetty project qualified for the emergency funding in this case because the jetty sustained damage during Hurricane Irene last year.

State Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who is co-chairman of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, said he is “extremely pleased’’ by the funding. “The team effort that is being mounted by the [alliance] is accomplishing things that just a few years ago were thought to be impossible,’’ he said.

“A big issue here is trying to undertake the repairs before we lose all the benefits of the dredging project,’’ Tarr said. “We have a three- to five-year window to repair the jetties, and that clock started ticking when the last grain of sand hit the beach. So I’m extremely pleased we are starting the process.’’

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