Sussex County Delaware

Assawoman Canal
Dredges Up Emotions

Assawoman Canal ...

Hearing Brings 300
to Bethany Fire Hall

SC Online Content Editor

A hearing on a state proposal to dredge the Assawoman Canal brought 300 people to the Bethany Beach Fire Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2002.

The state proposes to dredge about 4 miles of the canal, from Whites Creek to the Little Assawoman Bay. The application to dredge has been made by the state Division of Parks and Recreation.

As expected, the Sierra Club had a large turnout at the hearing to oppose the dredging. And residents of South Bethany, where the town is planning to dredge town lagoons, turned out in abundance to support the Assawoman project.

Also speaking was Nicholas DiPasquale, the former DNREC secretary. DiPasquale said he does not oppose the project, but listed several concerns. They included spending $250,000 to dredge the canal at a time when a state budget shortfall "puts essential services at risk." The money, DiPasquale said, "could be better used to maintain present park facilities."

DiPasquale also said he fears dredging the canal will lead to more boat traffic there, which will bring a need for more enforcement of "no wake" regulations and maintainance to keep the canal free of obstruction. Enforcement of regulations in state-controlled waters is "already a problem," he said.

Dredging the canal, DiPasquale said, will encourage more personal watercraft users to use it as "an aquatic dragstrip," he said, which would "destroy the peace and tranquility of the area."

If DNREC Secretary John Hughes issues a permit for the project, it would probably be constructed over a two-to-three-year period, according to Chuck Williams of DNREC's Division of Soil and Water Conservation.

The project would involve dredging about two-thirds of the length of the canal. A land-based hydraulic excavator would be used from the north end of the canal to just below the Route 26 bridge. The remainder of the project would be done with the state's smallest dredge, using a pump to pull sand, silt and clay from the canal bottom and a pipeline to carry it to a disposal site.

The disposal site for the southern portion of the project would be near Jefferson Creek; the disposal site for the northern section would be off Road 360 near the state's Fresh Pond property.

Most of those who spoke in opposition of the project identified themselves as members of the Sierra Club; several were heckled by other members of the audience as they attempted to speak.

Debbie Heaton of the Sierra Club said the organization is "committed to protecting this special water body" and said the canal is "part of the essential fish habitat" of the area.

Several speakers attacked the process that the state has used to advance the project. James Stuhltrager of the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center at Widener University said DNREC has failed to produce a cost-benefit analysis of the project.

Stuhltrager also cautioned that dredging the canal is not the answer to improving its water quality. "The real problem is development," he said. "Until you control that, you're not going to help your water quality."

Others, including South Bethany homeowner Harry Berridge, looked at the project as necessary maintenance of a man-made waterway. Himself a boater, Berridge said he wanted "to dispel the myths that those of who own boats are not environmentally friendly. It's clear that it's a manmade structure and man ought to fix it," he said.

Gerald Hocker, recently elected to represent the 38th District in the state House of Representatives, scoffed at concerns the project would harm existing marine life in the canal.

"I've heard a lot tonight that just isn't the truth," Hocker said.

As a lifelong resident of the area, Hocker said he crabbed and clammed in it as a youth and recalled a "huge tidal flow" in it decades ago -- all of which has been obliterated in recent years as the canal has filled in.

"I feel that the plusses outweigh the minuses to dredge that canal," he said.

Hocker, soon to be sworn in as a Republican representatives in the Republican-controlled House, pledged to work with Democratic state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., re-elected to the Democratic-controlled Senate, "to get it done."

Written public comment will be accepted on the dredge plan through Nov. 25.

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