Hard to believe, but true: the Sacred Bird, aka the piping plover, is holding up the Scarborough River dredging project. First, a brief review of the salient facts:
- The dredging project is running behind schedule. Contributing factors have been a late start due to contract approval issues, brutal weather and equipment problems. (There is also a hint of a suggestion that the contractor hasn’t been working hard or long enough on the project. Having seen them at work at all hours of the day, seven days a week, and in all sorts of inhumane weather, I personally discount that suggestion.)
- The project contract and Maine DEP permit require that the work be completed by March 31.
- Why March 31? You already know the answer to that question… That’s the date that USFWS and MDIFW specify as the beginning of piping plover season.
- Since the project will not be completed by the hard deadline of March 31, the US Army Corps of Engineers is evaluating how best to schedule the completion of the project – either this fall or after the beginning of 2015 (while the Sacred Bird is catching its breath in the Bahamas).
Pampering Piper Plovers – At What Cost?
I am not an engineer. In fact, high school physics was touch and go for me. But I do have a pretty good sense that there will be a significant additional cost involved with stopping the project on March 31 and restarting it again later in the year with a new contractor, versus simply extending the deadline of the current contractor by a few weeks.
To start a completely new project with a new contractor to finish the dredge in October or January will involve significant additional start-up and breakdown costs that would not be incurred by simply letting the current contractor finish the job in April. Among these additional costs would be going through another contract awarding process, transporting another barge and piping to the site, setting the new equipment up (it took the current contractor at least a couple of weeks to put all the pieces together in January), coordinating the work that has been done with the remaining work, breaking down the barge and equipment and shipping it back to its home base.
So while there won’t be any change in the total amount of sand dredged in the project, there will be significant front- and back-end costs associated with adding a second phase to the project. What might that cost be? $25,000? $50,000? More? I don’t the answer to that question. I certainly hope that someone is at least asking that question. Until a knowledgeable party provides a reasonable estimate of the additional costs involved in adding a second phase to the project as opposed to extending the current contractor’s deadline, here, for discussion purposes, is my estimate of the minimum additional costs involved with not extending the March 31 deadline – $25,000.
[Mr. Kim: If you are reading this, please contact me. I would like to hear your side of the story, as well as an estimate of how much longer it will take to complete the contracted work. TTH]
Western Beach as a Piping Plover Summer Destination: “Meh”
Let’s face it, the piping plovers have never really embraced Western Beach as prime habitat, despite the Prouts Neck cachet. Never has it made Plover Travel & Leisure Magazine’s “Top Twenty Beaches in Maine” list. In fact – to use some real data – Western Beach has a very spotty record as a plover destination. According to Audubon data, there have been exactly zero nesting attempts on Western Beach during the last three years. Not one. Zilch. Nada. And a total of only three nesting attempts there in the three-year period before that. Doesn’t sound like very crucial plover habitat, does it?
Dumb “Instinctually Challenged” Are the Little Guys?
So, at the moment, Western Beach is a mess – huge, unnatural piles of sand; heavy equipment rattling around all day; the constant and loud rattling sound of the sand pumping equipment and a huge and ever-present flock of gulls attending the sand outflow pipe at the water’s edge. It’s hard to imagine a more inhospitable piece of habitat for a piping plover. While a few hundred feet away – as the natural predator flies – is a relatively quiet and nutrient-rich stretch of Pine Point Beach. Why would any plover that had a microliter of survival instinct consider nesting on Western Beach in its current state when Pine Point Beach sits placidly across the Scarborough River entrance?
Those of you who have been following the goings-on involving the piping plover and Scarborough beaches since the beginning of this issue will recall that this is not the first time the harbor dredge project has been threatened by the Sacred Bird. In fact, delaying the dredge was the first club the USFWS used on the Town in their fanatical efforts to keep dogs off our beaches. At that time, some Town officials had their knickers in a frightful twist at the prospect of a delay in the dredge – they cited the inability of fishermen to get their boats in and out of the harbor if the dredge wasn’t completed this winter.
Things must have changed somehow in the last few months, since — at least based on media reports — not a peep has been heard from Councilors or the Town Manager about the possibility of extending the dredge deadline for a few weeks. Apparently defending the livelihood of the Town’s fishermen was only important when banning off-leash dogs on the beach was part of the deal. Interesting. And appalling, too, that apparently no Town leader even dares to raise the possibility of standing up to USFWS/MDIFW and extending the dredge deadline.
Patting Myself on the Back and Kicking Myself in the @¢¢
Although I was early in identifying the dredge as being behind schedule, my conclusion on the result of the delay was totally off the mark. As you will recall, in the last blog entry I predicted a major panic when it became clear that the dredge project would not be completed on time. Wrong. No need for panic… the March 31 deadline is sacrosanct, inviolable, untouchable. We are, after all, talking about the Sacred Bird. He shall not be inconvenienced.
So the only handwringing has been about how best to respond to the needs of Scarborough’s fishermen and recreational boaters in a manner that minimizes the fact that their needs are clearly secondary to those of the piping plover. I made a rookie mistake – I assumed that the dredge project was being directed by reasonable people using common sense. Obviously experience has taught me nothing.
Dumb Lacking in Common Sense Are We?
To summarize, then:
- Western Beach has never been high on the piping plover’s nesting radar. No nesting attempts have been made there in the past three years. (Now that’s SCIENCE!)
- Any bird with half a brain checking out Western Beach in its current disrupted state would quickly choose nearby Pine Point Beach as a preferred nesting site. (More Science!)
- Taxpayers will foot a significant bill — $25,000 or perhaps much more — for not extending the dredge timeline. All to allow the Sacred Bird the opportunity to grace us with its presence. We may or may not be honored by his presence. (Economics!)
- Scarborough fishermen will be put at unnecessary risk and inconvenience for the spring and summer, on the off chance that a plover plunks his or her adorable little tush down on Western Beach. (Politics!)
Please wake me when this nightmare is over.