Army Corps outlines next steps in Hix Bridge debris removal

Hix Bridge, seen from near the boat ramp. Hix Bridge, seen from near the boat ramp.

Hix Bridge, seen from near the boat ramp.

Hix Bridge, seen from near the boat ramp.

Efforts to rid the Westport River’s East Branch of debris left behind from past Hix Bridge repair jobs are moving forward, say Town Administrator Timothy J. King and members of the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA).

A conference call last week that included the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. King, WRWA’s  Betsy White, and officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation spelled out the tentative timetable as well as some funding details, information that Mr. King shared with the Board of Selectmen Monday.

Next up, says the Army Corps, will be a feasibility study for which the Corps has committed $100,000, of which it has already spent $54,000. The Corps, which estimated that the study could cost up to $200,000, requires the town to match any study cost amount over $100,000 at a 50-50 rate.

Other funding sources are available to the town, however, that should help the work proceed without Westport committing money of its own to the work.

Although the WRWA cannot pay the town’s matching obligation, it is looking into ways it can help with the study, Ms. White said.

“A lot of research has already been done by us (and others) and we will review it to make sure that nothing is done that is redundant,” Ms. White said. And the Alliance may also be able to help with work that remains to be done — water sampling and permitting help, for instance — “which can help keep costs down.”

Also, a state transportation bond issue approved this spring includes $400,000 for the Westport project, some of which could be used for the study phase.

“The Army Corps will come up with a draft plan for the scope of work …  perhaps by the end of August,” Ms. White.” The study itself will take about a year, after which, if the Army Corps deems the project to be feasible, actual removal work could begin.

Removing the debris will cost around $600,000, the Corps expects, for which it will pay 65 percent and the town is committed to 35 percent.

But local officials expect the town share will be covered by the balance of that $400,000 state contribution as well as by such non-monetary assistance as providing shore staging facilities.

Although the feasibility study has not yet been done, Ms. King said the Army Corps is approaching the project with enthusiasm.

They have indicated that they believe this relatively small project has the capability of going a long way toward “helping shellfish — oysters and quahogs — re-seed beds up there that were once very productive.”

The Hix Bridge project would involve removing massive chunks of concrete and debris dumped to the north of the bridge during several rebuilds of the bridge. This rubble, say the WRWA and others who have looked at it, has caused severely restricted water flow there and cut the depth of the once-deep channel to a few feet except in the eastern-most passage.

Ken Perez, now retired, studied the situation for the Environmental Protection Agency 15 years ago.

In what had been nearly 30-foot deep water, “we’re suddenly getting depths of just a few feet. What’s that about?”

This had historically been a superb oyster area, he said. “It had everything going for it — lack of predators because salinity is lower,  good current speed in a narrow part of the river, and a hard bottom” washed clean of muck by that current.

But now, on the north side of the barrier, the “current has been reduced by a factor of four or five (and) and the oysters are literally suffocating in silt.”

To learn more, the WRWA has set oyster floats out on the north and south sides of the bridge to compare oyster growth.

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