Redesigned dike will enable a sick river to recover

By Edward Miller, Banner Staff

WELLFLEET — The restoration of the Herring River estuary in Wellfleet and Truro to its natural state will have long-lasting economic benefits for the town, Selectman Dennis Murphy told the more than 110 people who came to last Saturday’s State of Wellfleet Harbor conference at the elementary school. Among those anticipated benefits are expanded shellfishing areas, a revitalized herring run, a cleaner and healthier habitat for a variety of marine species and plants, expanded access to the river for recreation, protection from storm surges and fewer mosquitoes.

This last item is a bit ironic, as the ostensible reason for building the Chequessett Road dike and draining the Herring River salt marshes in 1909 — a project pushed by local banana tycoon Lorenzo Dow Baker — was to reduce the mosquito population and thus increase tourism, including at the elegant Chequessett Inn, which he owned.

Baker and his cohorts commissioned a report from Boston civil engineers H. T. Whitman and Channing Howard to justify the project. Their report, produced in 1906, enthusiastically endorsed the dike, even though the engineers admitted that they knew nothing about mosquitoes beyond “a smattering of information.” But they agreed that it was a worthy goal “to transform the unsightly swamps (which must, as they grow worse and more neglected, be a direct menace to health) into clean and healthy areas which will add to, instead of detract from, the beautiful landscape with which nature has richly endowed this locality.”

In fact, the dike made the mosquito problem worse. And it created a host of unforeseen effects on the environment by drastically reducing the flow of oxygen-rich seawater into the estuary and disturbing the natural chemical balance of the former salt marsh.

“The Herring River now suffers from chronic dissolved oxygen depletion, which adversely affects fish,” said ecologist John Portnoy at an Oct. 29 discussion about the river at the Wellfleet library. The dike also created conditions that favor the survival of fecal coliform bacteria (mainly from wildlife, not humans) and contribute to sulfate mobilization in the soil, he said. The sulfates increase the acidity of the water to such a high level that large numbers of fish are killed by it.

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