ELLSWORTH — The city budget passed on June 23 was light on spending for capital projects, as the council and city manager sought to keep costs in check amid these uncertain economic times.
According to the Harbor Commission, its request for several improvements to the harbor and the park surrounding it were among the projects pushed into the future.
The commission had hoped to fix the sidewalk near the water, as well as move Harris’s Harborside Takeout closer to the water and grade a section of the lot to provide more parking. On top of that, the commission had hoped to repair the wooden cribwork that keeps the dock in place by replenishing the stones that weigh the large wooden structures down that have eroded over time.
Harbor Commission Chairman Mark Remick said at a budget workshop on June 9 that these improvements are all needed to help continue what has been a years-long restoration of the harbor and the park that surrounds it.
“We’ve had an increase in the use of the harbor, harbor park, all of those waterfront facilities, and there are times when we don’t have enough space to accommodate people who have come down for lunch,” Remick said. “That’s a great problem to have … but we have to be able to organize things so that people can get in and get out.”
And while the cribwork is not to the point of failure, Remick and Harbormaster Adam Wilson noted, once they do go they will not be able to be replaced.
“As a part of the Harbor Commission, I’m obviously very passionate about the harbor,” said Remick when reached for comment after the passage of the budget. “But I have the luxury of looking at just one piece of the entire puzzle. The council doesn’t have that. I understand that they are doing the best that they can with the money that is available. And the commission will continue to do the best we can with what we have as well.”
One major improvement that has the potential to sink the harbor, financially and otherwise, is the dredging of the section of the Union River where it meets the bay, out around the marker labeled number 4. At a council budget workshop earlier this month, Remick explained why the dredging project is imperative.
“At mean low tide you can walk out through the mud,” Remick explained to the council. “What that does is, that chokes off a lot of the commercial guys, the bigger vessels that come in to use our fuel, use our pump stations …. If that dredge doesn’t happen, we’re dead in the water.”
Remick mentioned recently that recreational boaters are also losing interest due to the difficulty in getting in and out of the harbor. A loss of any one of these groups of boaters, according to the commission, could upset the delicate financial balance that has been built over the years that keeps the harbor economically viable.
The area in question has been dredged twice now, the last time in October 2000. During that dredge, the Army Corps of Engineers removed roughly 112,000 yards of material from the river. That project cost about $2.7 million and was prolonged due to an underestimation of the amount of rocks that needed to be dredged.
This time around, the Corps estimates it will need to remove about half the amount of materials, around 65,000 cubic yards, to restore the project to authorized dimensions. The issue this time around, however, is the fact that the riverbed is contaminated with heavy metals. Instead of dumping the dredged material in open water, the Corps will need to remove the sediment and store it somewhere on land, causing the price of the operation to increase dramatically.
Luckily for the city, it may not have to shoulder the entire cost of the project. Sen. Susan Collins’ office confirmed that the Senator has included $5 million for the Union River dredging project on her list of Congressionally Directed Spending Requests for fiscal year 2023.
The next step at the federal level will be working to include project funding in the FY23 Energy and Water Appropriations bill. In addition to being a member of the Appropriations Committee, Collins is a member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee that will be authoring this bill.
None of this guarantees by any means that the federal government will end up providing funding for the project, as the budget process includes a complex series of negotiations and can drag on for months. But the fact that it is on the list is encouraging to those who care about the long-term health of the harbor, like Remick.
“We’re very encouraged with all of that,” Remick said. “But as a city we also have to be prepared to meet the matching fund demand. If we’re not prepared to do that, then we’re going to lose this opportunity, much like we did five or six years ago.”