OCEAN CITY - Thousands of snails shaking their shells in the mud were the only things moving in Snug Harbor at low tide on Monday afternoon.
Boats sat motionless in the muck. Even at high tide, many of the vessels can hardly navigate the lagoon between Eighth and Ninth streets.
"I won't get my boat out this year," said Sean Barnes, who lives on Revere Place, as he looked down from a dock. "Even the jet skis run aground here."
The scene is a clear indication of why concerns about back-bay dredging in Ocean City have come to a head this year. Silting is an issue most coastal towns face at some point, but the problems here are starting a movement that could extend beyond the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
Local officials are organizing a citizens association that would serve as a unified voice to raise awareness and gain support for changes to the state's dredging regulations. The long-term goal is to encourage lawmakers to find solutions to the problem that has long limited dredging projects: finding a location for the spoils.
"This isn't an Ocean City issue," said Councilman Keith Hartzell, who took part in organizing a community meeting on the situation earlier this month that drew about 120 people. "This a massive issue. … Our boating industry could be in jeopardy."
Ocean City is in the midst of a project to clear the bay waterways from 15th to 34th streets, and has plans to dredge both Snug Harbor and Glen Cove lagoons later this year. That should make them fully navigable again for at least three to five years.
After those projects, though, the city will have used up all its space for dredge spoils.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection has strict restrictions on where governments can put the material they pump from waterways. In some cases, it can be polluted from collecting contaminants over the years, and in other cases the saltwater itself can be problematic for freshwater.
Finding a way to clear the impasse those regulations create, and open more sites for dumping spoils, has been an ongoing crusade for leaders throughout the state, but little progress has been made. Nevertheless, officials in Ocean City hope they can start a renewed push for action.
"This is going to be a long, hard fight," said Hartzell, who said they have about 500 names of people interested in being involved in the effort.
The idea is that with enough people organized to show how important this issue is, state and federal lawmakers may take notice to institute changes that would open up new possibilities. Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, attended the first community meeting on June 15, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, is expected at a future meeting.
Ocean City's major spoils site is an island near 34th Street, but the approximately $2 million ongoing dredging project will fill that up with about 100,000 cubic yards of material. Another site under the new Route 52 bridge can hold another 15,000 cubic yards.
The site under the bridge has the potential to be used indefinitely, because trucks can access the area and take the material away, but then there needs to be a place inland where it could be unloaded.
"We certainly haven't had anyone clamoring for these products in the past," said Councilman Michael Allegretto, who is involved in the effort to form the new association.
The work is still in the early stages. Leaders are not sure what direction it will take, but they envision joining forces with other coastal communities.
Meanwhile, the people affected by the increasingly shallow waterways are not exactly waiting patiently.
While homeowners with boat slips, such as Barnes, should see relief this year, there are no plans to help people such as Joel Richard, who owns two bayfront businesses in the city at Third Street and Bay Avenue that have been partly incapacitated recently.
At low tide, the boat he uses for Ocean City Parasail sat in its lift, high above the mud. The Sea Dragon, his custom pirate ship he uses for family tours, sat behind it, stuck.
"My impression is they don't have a prayer of doing anything until they find a spoils site," said Richard, who said he has had to turn away business at times of day when he can't get his boats out.
Next door, John Stenton, co-owner of Bayside Subs and Deli, said even his business has been hurt by this, because he benefits from people renting boat slips or taking trips at Richard's businesses.
"If Joel can't fly and the pirate ship can't go out, people don't come," he said. "People get angry, then they go on Facebook and tell all their friends, 'Don't bother going to Ocean City, they got no water.'"
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