New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Residents blame aging bridge for erosion of marshlands
OLD SAYBROOK — Twice every day, the high tidal waters of the Back River begin racing back to Long Island Sound, a centuries-old routine that now has some nearby residents worried.
For the water to reach its destination, it must eventually pass under one of two narrow bridges that act as bottlenecks, intensifying the flow, and directing the water directly at marshland and even homes. One bridge in particular, No. 01386, has prompted pleas for help from residents in Great Hammock Beach, who say the marshland has receded 23 feet in a little over a decade, and is inching closer to their homes.
“Eventually, we will lose property,” said Scott Loveland, a longtime resident of Great Hammock Beach and president of the neighborhood association. “It’s getting pretty close to some people’s yards.”
When the Connecticut Department of Transportation announced plans to replace the bridge — which was built in 1935 and is in poor condition, according to the DOT — several years ago, it spurred Loveland and some of neighbors into action, writing letters to transportation officials, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and even the Gov. Ned Lamont.
He urged them to study a replacement that would solve both the problem of the aging bridge and its impact on the nearby wetlands.
The response, according to correspondence shared by both Loveland and state officials, has been an assertion that the erosion is naturally occurring along a bend in the Back River, and that attempts to solve the issue by changing the design of the bridge will not be effective.
Transportation officials even commissioned a hydraulic study by RACE Coastal Engineering in January 2020, which determined that widening the bridge to reduce the size of the bottleneck would not reduce the erosion, nor would removing the bridge entirely.
“Through extensive analysis and evaluation, it has been determined that the proposed bridge replacement will not prevent the naturally occurring bank erosion,” Transportation Commissioner Joseph Guilietti wrote in the letter to lawmakers last year, explaining the results of the study. “It is important that the project remain on schedule and the deteriorating superstructure is replaced before the bridge condition becomes critical.”
While Loveland conceded that some of the erosion is naturally occurring, he said it has been made worse in recent years by rising sea levels that frequently gorge the wetlands on the other side of the bridge. When the tide begins to recede, it’s like a giant plug being pulled upstream from his home, he said.
On a recent visit to the bridge after a late-afternoon high tide, the water was racing under the bridge toward the marshland and beach association docks. The current was so strong when it hit the marsh that it curled back around toward the bridge, creating several eddies of swirling water.
Loveland’s neighbor, Rick Tanasi, said the current has become so strong under the bridge that it’s become a hazard to boaters attempting to tie up at the nearby docks and to kayakers who can get pulled under by the turbulent waters. Both men said they have lived in the area for more than 60 years, and
say they want the state to take more time to invest in studies to determine how to mitigate the erosion.
“We just felt with the bridges being replaced, this is the most opportune time to do something,” Loveland said.
Earlier this month, Loveland submitted a petition signed by more than 25 neighbors to
DEEP, seeking to force a public hearing over the agency’s environmental review of the bridge replacement project. As of Friday, Loveland said he has not received a response.
Will Healey, a spokesman for DEEP, said Thursday that the agency has reviewed the DOT’s application to replace the bridge and concurred with the agency’s findings.
“Several different studies show that a bridge span of 100 ft. would still not have a significant effect on erosion,” Healey said in an email. “It should be noted that this area of the Black River is on an outside bend where it is a natural process for erosion to occur as the river wants to meander.”
The bridge replacement project is currently scheduled to begin in April and wrap up by November 2022, according to Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for
the DOT. The entire project is expected to cost just over $2.5 million, he said.
Both Loveland and Tenasi said they were frustrated by the response from state officials, noting that Lamont’s administration has made coastal resiliency and combating the effects of climate change a priority.
Tanasi said he also believes
sea level rise is worsening the erosion in the marshes off Great Hammock, along with wetlands up and down the Shoreline.
“The concern is there’s a massive amount of marsh dieoff — there’s an awful lot of bank erosion,” Tanasi said. “The concern is it’s not just this one spot, this is a statewide issue that’s out there.”