OCEAN CITY — For T.J. Heist, owner of the inflatable Totally Tubular Aqua Park, his first year in business last summer brought an unforeseen challenge — low tide paired with built-up silt in the bay meant water was sometimes too shallow for swimming. He’d be forced close shop for a few hours.
Last week, workers finished clearing out about 300 cubic yards of muck from his marina, but other bayfront homeowners had incomplete projects as a Feb. 28 deadline for finishing all dredging neared.
“I was anxious it wouldn’t get done (by then),” Heist said.
The city recently announced that the state Department of Environmental Protection extended Ocean City’s dredging season by a month, giving homeowners more time to remove sediment from clogged channels.
The deadline is now March 31, giving contractors nine months out of the year to clear the bay. Excess silt poses a danger to boats navigating the lagoons and hurts the tourism economy, residents and officials say.
The window used to be smaller, but was extended in 2017 by three months.
“If you chose not to dredge in July or August, you had a very short window,” said Doug Bergen, spokesman for Ocean City.
The Department of Environmental Protection bans work April through June, when protected fish ret urn to the Great Egg Harbor Bay, including the American shad, blueback herring, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and American eel. Those fish were found to migrate later.
“The timing restriction will be in place from April 1 through June 30,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. “It’s a very productive ecosystem with numerous tributaries that provide habitat for migratory fish.”
Ocean City recently completed part of a $20 million dredging project in December after becoming the first municipality in New Jersey to receive blanket approval from the state to dredge along its entire span. Dredged material is being used for beneficial use projects in the Tuckahoe section of Upper Township.
Homeowners can piggy back off the city’s permit by contracting privately with the city’s dredge contractors and paying the costs themselves, Bergen said.
Joe Stewart, owner of Trident Marine Piling Company, said by the end of this season, he anticipates they will complete 100 private projects. His company is one of two that do all dredging for Ocean City residents, the other being Scarborough Marine Group.
The average resident removes 100 cubic yards of material, Stewart said, though it varies. Private dredging costs range from about $5,000 to $15,000.
He said the extension will help some second homeowners, who aren’t present in the winter when dredging usually takes place.
“A lot of people disappear in the winter. They’re snowbirds,” Stewart said. “We send letters to their homes, but people seem to not hear about it in time.”
The extension reduces dredging costs as well due to increased competition, said Eric Rosina, vice president of ACT Engineers.
The unit price of privately dredging a boat slip in Ocean City decreased by 10 to 15 percent from 2017 to 2018, Rosina said. About 150 homeowners in the past two years submitted dredging applications and more than 40,000 cubic yards of silt were removed.
Dredging is allowed for most of the year now, Rosina said, and there likely won’t be more extensions to the season.
“We’re up against environmental restrictions,” Rosina said. “It seems like nine months is enough.”