Over twenty years ago, Three Bays Preservation was founded with a mission to protect our bays with a primary focus to preserve the barrier island known as Dead Neck Sampson’s Island (DNSI). Four years ago, we changed our name to Barnstable Clean Water Coalition (BCWC), as we recognized that everything we loved about Cape Cod would be at risk if our waters continued to deteriorate.
Without clean water, our whole world is in trouble. Harmful algae choke our estuaries and worsening conditions further threaten aquatic organisms and impact human health. Over 70 percent of our ponds are in decline and our aquifer, that supplies all drinking water on Cape Cod, is at risk.
Yet, even as we look forward to new solutions, it is important to look back. This newsletter highlights the history of DNSI. I often run into people who say “don’t change anything” when, in fact, everything is already changed! Historically, Dead Neck was a long spit of land that stretched to the west from Wianno, just like Long Beach does today in Centerville. Sampson’s laid to the west as a separate island. Around 1900, the villagers of Osterville decided they needed a better harbor entrance, so they dredged and fortified a new channel which is now the Wianno Cut.
At the time, this was not without controversy (Cotuit residents opposed the effort), nor without consequence. Since the littoral current flows from east to west, the new cut interrupted the natural flow of water and movement of sand resulting in the truncated Dead Neck merging with Sampson’s Island to form DNSI.
Like the constantly maintained Cape Cod Canal, the changes from a century ago require regular maintenance to allow recreational and commercial vessels to enjoy safe passage. In fact, this is the case all over the Cape with the constantly shifting sands.
We have changed our environment by adding wastewater to our groundwater. Climate change is warming our planet. Warming air and water are increasing algal growth. With your support, we completed the most recent of perhaps a dozen dredging projects over the last 100 years. In the process, we have improved water flow, navigation, and island habitat. These efforts buy us time and mitigate some of our trespasses.
Looking back, you will see that this area has played many roles in our history. Oyster Harbors is so named because of the once-abundant shellfish beds, which are still evident in the “middens” found there. Some of these discarded piles of shells from our Native American forefathers stood over two stories high.
The salt marshes around Sampson’s once provided food for cattle. Cotuit Harbor became an important transit point to and from Nantucket due to the easy navigation afforded by our regular southwest winds.
Later, this area became an important summer destination for wealthy people from New York, Pittsburgh, and Boston to enjoy our warm weather and waters. Only then did our coastline start to change with increased development along the water’s edge.
Our shorelines are constantly changing, and sea level rise will likely result in Sampson’s and Dead Neck becoming separate islands again. Rather than hugging the coastline, our homes will need to retreat inland. Warming waters will result in different aquatic species moving in and taking hold.
Please enjoy this opportunity to step back in time and consider the future we want for ourselves and our families. This summer, try to visit Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard or the outer Cape in Orleans and Chatham to see their eel grass beds and pristine waters. We can have that again around DNSI, but we all must work together!