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Sen. Shaheen helps secure funds for river, creek dredging

PORTSMOUTH - Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on Tuesday announced she had secured out of committee a total of $650,000 in funding for planned dredging work in Portsmouth Harbor and Sagamore Creek, to be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers.

On top of that, $150,000 for a feasibility study on enlarging a turning basin for ships in the Piscataqua River was also approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and added to the Pease Development Authority Division of Ports and Harbors' commitment of $375,000 toward that project.

All of those funds, part of the Fiscal Year 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, must still clear the full Senate and House before they can come forward. Chris Williams, of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, said all three projects will make it easier for ships to navigate the Piscataqua and the creek.

Williams said the largest share of the money will go toward dredging the Simplex Shoal, a small section of the river in which sands build up every seven to nine years, making travel near it a safety issue. This isn't the first time the shoal has been dredged, he said, and it likely will be dug even deeper than usual in an attempt to slow down the shoal buildup.

The primary concern with moving the shoal was where the dredged sand would end up. Williams said N.H. Fish and Game was concerned that too much sand placed near the mouth of the river would interfere with lobster migratory patterns. The sand could also end up in the open water near the Isles of Shoals, he said, adding that by timing the work next year, those concerns could be avoided.

Sagamore Creek has not been dredged since the 1970s, Williams said, but it has become necessary to ensure easy access for fishermen and others who use the creek. Ultimately, that's what all the Army Corps of Engineers' projects are about, he said.

"They're navigation projects," he said. "It's an economic issue, it's a safety issue."

Port Director Geno Marconi said he co-signed a letter to the state's congressional delegation requesting funding. The turning basin is the facet of the project that will most directly benefit the Port of New Hampshire, as it will have a direct impact on commercial shipping.

"It's a good thing for everyone. Ships are getting bigger, and we want to make sure we can accommodate the vessels that are coming here in the future," Marconi said.

Work will expand the turning basin by about 150 feet, to at least 1,000 feet in width. That will give more breathing room for ships in an already tight channel with strong currents, as many ships entering the harbor are up to 750 feet long, and ensure that if ships are built larger, they'll be able to access the area.

Shaheen said in a statement she believes the dredging will be a boon for the Seacoast. "Portsmouth Harbor supports millions of dollars of economic activity in the Seacoast and across New Hampshire, and we have a responsibility to ensure its proper maintenance and upkeep," she said. "These two projects will support continued and unimpeded transit on the river."