BATH, Maine — During a tour of the Kennebec River on Monday afternoon, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust (KELT) outreach director Alicia Heyburn pointed out that it’s natural for the water to have a brown tint.

In the rapidly moving current, sediment is routinely lifted from the river bottom to swirl along in the push and pull of the incoming tide and the outgoing river, Heyburn said.

However, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans earlier this year to dredge a section of the river bottom near Phippsburg in August to clear the way for the future USS Spruance to make its way from Bath Iron Works to the open ocean, KELT and other local environmental groups expressed concerns about the implications for clam flats, fishing, tourism and other seasonal businesses.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been called to clear the channel every few years to accommodate Navy vessels built at BIW. The work typically occurs during the winter months, when it exerts a far less worrisome impact on shellfish harvesters and summer residents.

Environmental disruption related to the dredging posed particular threats to small clams, Heyburn said, because they could be smothered in deeper layers of silt.

“Clams can move,” Heyburn said, “but not very fast.”

So far, Heyburn said, KELT volunteer observers who monitored the water after the August dredging operation deemed that an immediate impact has been minimal.

“For the short term, we’re in the clear,” Heyburn said.

Interruptions to the dredging schedule, the result of a “generator breakdown” in early August, may have helped mitigate the impact of the operation as well, Heyburn said.

Heyburn said that area clammers are still uncertain if small clams, who would be harvested in later years, have been affected.

“The fear is that the young clams will be buried and are too small to climb through (the sediment),” Heyburn said. “Clammers are thinking that next year and two years from now will be the most affected.”

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