2014-02-21 / Front Page

Study of birds may delay coastal beach fix

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

A project proposed to mitigate damage at Camp Ellis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may be on hold due to a determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it may adversely affect the piping plover, a federally threatened shorebird.

The Army Corps in August 2013, requested the service to concur that the species would not be negatively impacted. In a letter dated Jan. 22, Maine Field Office Supervisor Laury Zicari of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the service “cannot concur on a determination of not likely to adversely affect based on an incomplete project description and incomplete evaluation of the effects on listed species.”

At a Feb. 12 meeting of the city’s shoreline commission, members said they were frustrated because they can’t move forward on a project that has been in the planning stages for nearly a decade. The project calls for the construction of a 500-foot spur jetty, nearshore breakwaters and periodic filling of sand at Camp Ellis Beach. Nearshore breakwaters are structures built on the upper beach at the high water mark to reduce the energy of waves reaching the shoreline.

“We’re going to do more damage by doing nothing,” said commission Chairman Dean Coniaris.

The piping plover is listed as an endangered species in Maine, with only 44 known pairs nesting in the entire state in 2013. Only one pair is known to have nested in Saco beaches last year, but in the past the city has hosted two nesting pairs. The Fish and Wildlife Service also raised concerns about the project’s impact on the rufa red knot, another species of shoreline bird that suffered a population decline in the early 2000s.

“Three or $4 million has been spent on studies – this has been studied to death. We need to stop studying and do something,” said Rick Milliard, the commission’s vice chairman. “Without (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) approval, we can’t move forward.”

Milliard said he had contacted officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and was told the Corps wants to get the project started.

“The Corps of Engineers wants to get this done,” Milliard said. “They don’t think (additional studies) are necessary.”

In her letter, Zicari requested that a biological assessment be conducted for a full analysis of the project’s effects. The service requested that the Corps study the effects of the noise of trucks and heavy equipment on nesting plovers and migrating knots, identify a sand source with correct grain size and color, and establish beach management agreements with Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough.

Zicari also raised concerns about dog ordinances in all three municipalities, and the lack of a hired piping plover coordinator in each municipality – which she implied are necessary components of a beach management plan that would meet the service’s guidelines.

“Completing and signing beach management agreements with communities … that meet the service’s piping plover guidelines and address red knots is instrumental to avoiding many, but not all, adverse effects to these species,” Zicari wrote. “The city of Saco does not have a beach management agreement … We question whether an agreement will be developed that meets our guidelines. We learned the city’s dog ordinance does not meet our guidelines … and the city likely does not have funds to hire a piping plover coordinator. The service currently has beach management agreements with Old Orchard and Scarborough, but neither meets our guidelines. Both communities have dog ordinances that do not meet our guidelines, and both have not hired a piping plover coordinator to implement the plan.”

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines, pets must be “leashed at all times on piping plover nesting beaches,” and the leash may not exceed eight feet in length.

Coniaris said he is concerned about the ongoing “neverending” calls for studies, because the Army Corps of Engineers has already conducted numerous and expensive studies assessing the environmental impact of the project, and has done so in consultation with other governmental departments and with consideration of the Endangered Species Act.

“This is a political act,” Milliard said. “I think (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) did this to buy more time.”

Milliard said the University of New England has also been coordinating with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a seaweed structure that may help mitigate soil migration from Camp Ellis to Pine Point. The university’s Marine Science Center is seeking more than $11 million in federal funds for an “Engineering with Nature” project that will research the use of seaweed erosion mitigation systems in Saco Bay and possibly fund its construction.

Kathleen Dziadzio, the shoreline commission’s secretary, said everybody is ready to proceed except the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose recent response effectively halts the project.

“Now we have to shut the entire project down while we wait for yet another study to be conducted,” Dziadzio said. “This is very frustrating.”

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