faring poorly also,
but isn't viewed yet as dire
Inlet is faring nearly as poorly as its counterpart to the north, with
similarly difficult-to-resolve shoaling issues. But it is not yet
viewed as an equally dire situation.
"Hatteras Inlet has a problem," said
Hatteras charter boat captain Ernie Foster. "Oregon Inlet has a
While the Dare County Tourism Board
agreed last month to provide $300,000 in matching funds for dredging
Oregon Inlet, it would likely take an act of Congress to authorize the
work necessary to widen the federal channel in Hatteras Inlet.
Foster, a tourism board member, said
that the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is so clogged with
sand it is difficult to navigate, especially for mariners who are
unfamiliar with the waterway. Ferry traffic has had to use an
alternate, and longer, channel for the last two years.
"The inlet has never been like it is
now," Foster, a native waterman, said. "The slightest miscalculation ,
or the slightest change in conditions" creates navigation challenges.
Foster said the conditions are
worrying recreational and commercial fishermen and the business
communities in Hatteras and Ocracoke villages. He added that the
Tourism Board has not yet been asked to contribute funds to dredge
Hatteras Inlet, which has an economic impact estimated at $150 million
to $168 million.
With its much larger economic impact, Oregon Inlet, by comparison, is
currently impassable most days for all but the smallest vessels.
Concerns about the severe impact on commerce -- fishing, boating and
tourism -- has county and state officials focused on finding an
immediate remedy, as well as a long-term solution.
Although Hatteras Inlet is also a
critical passage, for the most part local watermen like Foster are
still able to get out to the ocean, and ferry traffic can still transit
"We're having no problems with the
long route," said Ferry Division Deputy Director Jed Dixon, referring
to the new channel.
Dixon said he has heard that some
other vessels may sometimes bump bottom, but he is not aware of any
groundings in the new route, a natural deep-water channel known as
The former ferry route through
Rollinson Channel, meanwhile, will remain too treacherous until it is
dredged properly, he said.
"It's not a safe option right now,"
Dixon said. "The short route we historically had run is basically
As the designated
federally-maintained route, Rollinson Channel provided passage for
boats from Hatteras village to the end of the Hatteras spit. Then boats
would turn into the inlet toward the ocean or north to the Ocracoke
ferry docks in a state-maintained channel.
But much of the old channel,
especially at the turn, has narrowed and been increasingly difficult to
keep clear. Shoaling only got worse after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and
Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Barney Slough, which is not dredged, was
designated by the Coast Guard as the alternate navigation channel in
February 2013, and it was officially made permanent in August 2014.
Until last December, the ferries had
alternated between the channels, using the shorter route whenever
In a presentation at the North
Carolina Board of Transportation meeting last month, the ferry division
provided details about the impact the longer route has had on service
and costs. The 9.5-mile channel takes about an hour to transit, versus
about 40 minutes for the former 4.3-mile route.
That translates to more fuel and
fewer passengers. For instance, in August 2013, 134,291 passengers were
transported on the short route, which had up to 52 departures a day. In
August 2014, there were 119,260 transported on the long route, which
had up to 42 departures a day.
It costs NCDOT as much as $250,000
more per month in labor and fuel to run the long route.
Although there have been longer
backups at the ferry stacking lanes in the summer, Dixon said, the
ferries have mostly managed to keep up with demand.
"Our wintertime schedule for probably
eight months out of the year," he said, "is the same as it's ever
An aerial map of Hatteras inlet
displayed at the DOT board meeting, with dotted lines showing shoreline
changes, illustrated an explanation for much of the shoaling -- the tip
of Hatteras Island, or the spit, has been eroding at a rapid rate.
Consequently, Dixon said, the inlet
is much wider and there is nothing to stop the sand from coming in from
"I think a jetty would help stabilize
the situation some," he said "But that would be a very hard uphill
After 30 years of effort, a proposed
twin-jetty project in Oregon Inlet was rejected in 2003 by a White
House panel that ruled the barriers would have negative effects on fish
populations and insignificant benefit to the economy.
Maintenance of Rollinson Channel is
the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, but the agency is
limited by fund shortages and its regulatory authority, said Bob
Sattin, chief of operations at the Corps' Wilmington district.
The Corps is authorized to maintain
the federal part of the Rollinson Channel at a depth of 10 feet and
width of 100 feet. But proposals to widen the channel to as much as 200
feet would necessitate a new study. That would be a time-consuming
process that requires Congressional approval, Sattin said.
"It's like requesting a new project,"
The Corps has $200,000 remaining in
the fiscal year 2015 budget for maintenance of Rollinson Channel. The
money, he said, will be used to dredge the parts of the channel still
used by boaters. But that leaves the severely shoaled areas
"Even if we were able to go in and
dredge the channel," Sattin said, "it wouldn't stay that way."
Despite emergency dredging, the Corps
has not been able to keep up with shoaling in the channel, which DOT
noted needs "constant dredging."
Sattin said that Congress has cut way
back in the Corps budget, which is based on projects, not general
funds. For instance, Oregon Inlet would typically receive $8 million.
This year it was allocated only $800,000.
If the state and the county can come
up with the funds to dredge Hatteras Inlet, Sattin said, they could
apply for a permit from the Corps to do the necessary work. Or they
could provide the money to the Corps to do the work. But unless
Congress acted, he said, the authorized width of the channel would
remain at 100 feet.
To Foster, the charter boat captain,
it seems obvious that the additional expense to the ferry system to use
the long route would make dredging the short channel worth it to the
state. Not only that, the conditions are more challenging for the Coast
Guard. And Dare and Hyde counties stand to lose tourist and fishing
"There's finite funds," Foster said.
" It seems to me we all have common cause in looking at a solution.
That means looking at all available sources and working cooperatively."
For more information on the Ferry
Division's presentation to the N.C. Board of Transportation at its
December meeting, go to http://www.ncdot.gov/download/about/board/bot/archivemeeting/2014/201412_meetingarchive.pdf.