February 21, 2014

Sand woes:  Emergency nourishment delayed
again; ferry channel still being dredged

By CATHERINE KOZAK

There’s too much sand in the Hatteras ferry channel and not enough on the beach in Rodanthe, and state and federal officials are working on both ends of Hatteras Island to address the issues.

An emergency beach nourishment project near the S-curves in northern Rodanthe is no longer considered an emergency by the federal government, but after several glitches, the project is nearly back on track.

And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state are still at work dredging Rollinson Channel in Hatteras Inlet for use by the state Ferry Division and other boats.
 
“All is good,” said Jamie Shern, environmental policy advisor to the state Secretary of Transportation, about the emergency nourishment project.  “We had to jump through extra hoops, which we jumped through.”

Shern said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unexpectedly told the state Department of Transportation about two months ago that a biological assessment, as part of a formal consultation, would be required to permit the 1.9-mile  project that will widen the beach north and south of S-Curves at the south end of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The governor on March 19 had declared a state of emergency for the Rodanthe area on Highway 12 because of severe damage from repeated ocean overwash during coastal storms.  That declaration was expected to help speed up the permitting for NCDOT and other agencies. The nourishment project is designed to last three years, until construction of a long-term solution for Rodanthe by Dare County.

A federal state of emergency had been declared after Hurricane Sandy for the same area, which allowed the consultation part of the permitting process to be waived.  But then the federal agency decided that the emergency has passed, triggering the need for the additional study.  

Shern said that nearly all the permits were in place when DOT had to put the brakes on to do the assessment, which studied the potential impacts of the project on shorebirds and sea turtles protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 

But DOT says the nourishment plans have not lost their urgency.

"This is still an emergency to the governor, to DOT and to the Corps, and we are still moving aggressively forward with the project," said DOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister.DOT staff worked all of January to complete the report, he said, and submitted it to Fish and Wildlife for a preliminary review.

With the condition to work within a limited range if a bird was seen nesting, Shern said, the assessment received positive feedback. It is currently being reviewed by the agency, which has 135 days to respond, but is expected to answer in about 60 days.

When the project was first advertised, the DOT had been told it needed to be completed by May 15 to limit impacts to the protected species. But now that the biological assessment has been done, addressing protocols to protect the species, the completion date in the next bid package will be April 15, 2015.

“No contractor was interested because it was too aggressive of a schedule,” Shern said. The new timetable will be “much more palatable,” to contractors.

Shern said that DOT has requested extensions on the permits, and hopes to start the project by summer.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers received only a single bid on Jan. 10 for what is known as the Highway 12 Protection Project, but the contract could not be awarded because the contractor had added his own conditions beyond what was advertised, Ann Johnson, chief of public affairs for the Corps’ Wilmington District, said in an e-mail.

The bid was also “well above” the engineer’s estimated cost and the available funding, she said.

“The large amount of dredging work currently underway in the northeast in response to Hurricane Sandy is likely the reason more and better bids were not received,” she said.

“The team is working together to re-advertise the project as soon as possible, and is looking at options to obtain more and better bids.”

By law, bid prices cannot be released, Johnson said. But DOT officials said last year that $15 million to $20 million in emergency funds for the project had been provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

Johnson said that 1.7 million cubic yards of sand will be dredged offshore from Wimble Shoals.

Meanwhile, dredges have been deployed by the Corps and the state Ferry Division to clear channels in Hatteras Inlet for ferry, charter boat, and private traffic.

Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the Corps’ Wilmington district, said that a portion of the federal Rollinson Channel had shoaled, and the dredge Currituck was working there from Jan. 10 to Jan. 14.  More dredging is scheduled, he said, for the mid-to latter part of March, probably for about seven days.

“We have that channel open,” Bullock said. “It has some parts on it where the channel is narrower than the authorized 100 feet, but most of it is navigable.”

Bullock said that the fiscal year 2014 President’s budget includes $300,000 for maintenance dredging of Rollinson Channel.

 Jed Dixon, deputy director of the state Ferry Division, said that the federal channel is passable for charter boat traffic, but not the ferries.

Since Dec. 20,  ferry traffic has been diverted to the emergency channel used for a few months last year. But that channel is about 10 miles and takes about an hour, versus the regular – now shoaled- channel that is 3.5 miles and takes about 40 minutes.

 The state pipeline dredge Carolina has been working for the last week in Hatteras Inlet to make a new ferry channel, Dixon said.

“The new channel that we’re dredging now is a little further away from the inlet,” he said, “and we’re hoping it’s going to be more stable.”

The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel is about 70 percent federal and 30 percent state, Dixon said.

In November, a statewide multi-year agreement was finalized between the state and the Army Corps to provide $4 million a year for emergency dredging, as long as matching funds are provided by a local sponsor such as Dare County.  Dixon said that so far, the local projects have not needed to tap the fund.

Dixon said he hopes that the new channel will be ready for ferries within three weeks.

It’s the same channel that was run about six years ago, he said. Recent surveys revealed that it is opening up again.

“Typically, the way things happen at the inlet,” he said, “is when a door closes somewhere, it’ll open up somewhere else.”



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