SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Saturday afternoon’s low tide was lower than most, the new moon leaving a vast, goey mudflat along the shore at the end of High Street. That’s where a group of 30 or so people had gathered just before dark, using the tidal muck and mire to prove a point.
Several held signs reading “help dig us out,” as a camera-laden drone buzzed overhead and they shouted the same phrase in unison for a set of terrestrial video cameras.
The muddy scene is part of a new video presentation aimed at securing millions of federal dollars for a long-sought Portland Harbor dredging project 20 years in the making. Private and municipal stakeholders are including the short film for a federal Department of Transportation Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity — or RAISE — grant program application due Feb. 28.
“The purpose of the video is to show these folks down in Washington, D.C. what a 9 foot low tide looks like. They’ve never been to Portland Harbor,” said Tom Bell of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. “And it’s to show them this project has broad support.”
The Portland Harbor Dredge Team — which is made up of officials from Portland, South Portland and the Portland Harbor Commission — is spearheading the grant-getting effort. It hired the Greater Portland Council of Governments to produce the video.
The entire dredging project is expected to cost somewhere in the vicinity of $32 million. About $22 million has already been secured, according to Portland Waterfront Coordinator William Needelman. That includes $10 million in state-administered federal ARPA funds, which were not available the last time the grant application was turned down in August.
At that time, the Dredge Team was asking for $18 million in RAISE funds. This time, they are seeking $10 million.
Needleman said the numbers are basically accurate, though they may change slightly as the application deadline gets closer, depending on several factors including inflation.
Portland Harbor has not been dredged in more than 70 years and is in sore need of it now, according to the Dredge Team. Portions of the sediment materials are natural, being transported to the harbor via rivers and driven between piers by regular waves, as well as storm surges. More sediment is also derived from winter road sand and construction materials washing into the harbor.
As it stands now, at low tide, some Portland waterfront slips off Commercial Street become unusable. Across the water in South Portland, silted-up sections are beginning to affect marina operations.
The proposed dredging project will remove around 224,000 cubic yards of sediment from between nearly every marine wharf on both sides of the harbor, including the commercial barge landing at Portland’s East End.
It will not include the deep water berths at Fore Points Marina or the large petroleum and freight facilities, which have their own dredging programs.
“A lot of these slips have been losing about six inches a year in depth from runoff and settling sediment,” said Parker Poole IV, who owns Determination Marine, a marine towing and salvage company docked at Portland’s Union Wharf. “It’s starting to get dicey leaving or coming back to the dock at low tide.”
Poole’s business has to be ready to lend a hand to mariners in need at all tides, 24 hours a day.
“We have to make sure we don’t load up the boats at dead low tide,” he said.
Bell’s video includes wharfside interviews with stakeholders like Poole, as well as lobstermen and members of Portland’s fireboat crew.
“We’ve got underwater video of Parker Poole’s boat propeller churning up the contaminated silt below, as well,” Bell said.
Toxic contaminants in the silt, left behind by centuries of waterfront industry, contribute to the prohibitive costs of dredging the harbor with local funds, alone. The material cannot be hauled up and just dumped at sea. It’s contaminated enough to pose a threat to local fisheries, including lobsters.
Instead, a special, multimillion dollar “aquatic disposal cell” must be designed and built. It will sequester the dredged materials away from the rest of Portland Harbor’s ecosystem.
If funded, the cell will be constructed in the harbor not far from the South Portland Coast Guard Station. Essentially a secure hole, the cell is expected to be 50 feet deep and spread out over nine acres.
Needelman said he hopes the video will be the extra push the dredging proposal needs to get federally funded. The project, which involves multiple private and municipal entities and landowners, is harder to understand than the average RAISE grant request, he said. Usually, the feds are looking at something simpler, like a bridge or a transportation hub.
“We want the video to illustrate the narrative, to humanize what’s at stake through pictures and video,” Needelman said. “This is our fourth try and we want to do something different this time.”