As government projects go, dredging is among the least appreciated. It doesn't have the excitement of a remade roadway, an improved tunnel or a shiny new commuter rail stop. But this is coastal Massachusetts, and the region's waterways have been a vital part of its commercial and community life for the better part of four decades.

Maintaining those waterways in an era of divided government resources and interests has become increasingly difficult, so it was encouraging to see local leaders come together last week to begin to figure out how to meet those challenges.

There's plenty of work to be done, and much of it will be done by the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is expected to begin a massive project on Gloucester's Annisquam River sometime next year.

That work, on one of the Northeast's busiest waterways, is aimed at removing 140,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from the river over the course of two years, at a cost of more than $6 million.

The Annisquam project is a large one, and since the river is a federal waterway, it's likely best handled with the deep pockets and expertise of the Army Corps. But there are plenty of smaller but no less important needs across the region, especially around inner channels and mooring areas. And local officials are wisely looking to combine resources to tackle the problem.

Municipalities from across the North Shore and Merrimack Valley met in Essex last week, as part of the Northeast Coastal Coalition headed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, to explore the idea of cooperating on dredging projects in the region's coastal and river waterways. Topics ranged from sharing expertise to kicking in to buy dredging equipment together.

The last idea was the most interesting.

Using a $50,000 grant administered by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, coastal scientists from the Woods Hole Group studied the region's dredging needs. What they found was a wide range of challenges.

The scientists, basing their research on historic data, found that roughly 351,000 cubic yards of sediment could be dredged from the Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester and Newburyport harbors and the Merrimack, Ipswich, Essex and Annisquam rivers. Currently, a mere 42,800 yards of material is dredged from these spots each year. And the study did not take into account 21 other waterways in the region, as there was no federal data on past dredging projects.

There's no way the state and federal governments can keep up with that pace. Local cities and towns, however, could pool their resources to buy their own dredging equipment, the Woods Hole Group suggested in its study.

The options — and their cost — range widely. The most expensive would be to buy a hopper dredging ship, which uses large suction pipes to pick up soft sediment. It costs $10.5 million to acquire, and about $1.1 million in annual operational costs. The region would need to dredge around 104,500 cubic yards of sediment a year to make it worthwhile, according to Woods Hole Group.

A second, more modest option calls for purchasing a hydraulic cutter suction pump, which would entail a one-time payment of $1.8 million and $700,000 in annual payments for operational costs. For this option to be fiscally feasible, Woods Hole Group recommended that around 57,000 cubic yards of sediment be dredged per year.

That seems like a manageable number for a regional collaborative, if the details can be worked out. And such a group effort doesn't rule out using the federal government or private contractors for larger, more complicated work (an option the Woods Hole Group wisely included in its study).

Last week's meeting of the Northeast Coastal Coalition was only the first in what will likely be many focused on the dredging issue. But the effort has already yielded a promising idea.