Budget includes money to unclog river’s East Branch

Hix Bridge as seen from the boat ramp. Arrow points to the safe navigational channel — depths in much of the rest of the passage have been severely restricted by dumped debris from past bridge rebuilds. Hix Bridge as seen from the boat ramp. Arrow points to the safe navigational channel — depths in much of the rest of the passage have been severely restricted by dumped debris from past bridge rebuilds.

Hix Bridge as seen from the boat ramp. Arrow points to the safe navigational channel — depths in much of the rest of the passage have been severely restricted by dumped debris from past bridge rebuilds.

Hix Bridge as seen from the boat ramp. Arrow points to the safe navigational channel — depths in much of the rest of the passage have been severely restricted by dumped debris from past bridge rebuilds.

Backers of efforts to clear the Westport River’s East Branch of debris from past Hix Bridge repair jobs say they are encouraged that the state budget, so far, includes money for the project.

“There are still steps to go through but that is great news, certainly,” said Matt Patrick, executive director of the Westport River Watershed Alliance.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget include $400,000 for the debris removal project. The money is part of a much larger state transportation bond bill that also includes funding for South Coast Rail and over $100 million for community projects.

“Credit our Westport delegation — Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Paul Schmid — they made it happen,” Mr. Patrick said Thursday.

It’s a good sign, he added, that the bill is in both House and Senate versions going into budget completion.

That $400,000 represents the state contribution to what is anticipated to be a $1 million project. “It is exactly what we need from the state,” he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, through its Aquatic Restoration Program, would pitch in the remaining $600,000 or so.

Mr. Patrick said the Army Corps is aware of the project and believes it to be a worthwhile one although there has not yet been any funding confirmation.

If the state share survives the budget process, and Mr. Patrick said he is optimistic that it will, “we will still have to fight to actually get the money spent.”

The Army Corps, Mr. Patrick said, has long been an enthusiastic partner in projects intended to repair damage done to waterways and wetlands.

Nearby recent examples include rebuilding Portsmouth’s ‘Town Pond’ marsh. The Army Corps itself blocked the entrance to that marsh by dumping sediment during 1950s dredge work. Over the decades it became a ‘dead zone’ filled mostly by phragmites. But about eight years ago, the Corps dug out the entrance channel, removed the phragmites and scoured out new marsh channels enabling wildlife to return.

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 Mr. Patrick and others, 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.”

Mr. Patrick said the flow restriction has allowed sediment to fill the deep holes,” leaving oysters few firm surfaces on which to attach.To test that theory, the WRWA has set oyster floats out on the north and south sides of the bridge to compare oyster growth.

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