April 24, 2015

As Oregon Inlet conditions improve,
attention turns to long-term solutions


As good weather and ongoing dredging have opened sand-clogged channels in Oregon Inlet that as recently as three weeks ago  were impassable, Dare County, the state, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are looking at long-range means to handle the recurrent shoaling issues.

Jim Tobin, chairman of the county's Oregon Inlet Task Force and manager of Pirate’s Cove Marina, said that vessels began transiting the main channel on Wednesday.

“It was great,” he said. “The channel is in pretty good shape right now.”

Tobin also said that the Oregon Inlet Waterways Commission voted on Tuesday to recommend to the Board of Commissioners that it be dissolved into the Task Force.

Created by the county in 1983, Tobin said the commission – of which he served as vice-chairman – is no longer needed to oversee Dare’s ditches and canals since county staff has taken the responsibility. Rather than duplicate efforts, Tobin said, members of both panels agreed to merge into the Task Force, which the county established in 2013 to focus on solutions to navigation issues in Oregon Inlet.  

Commission member Jed Dixon and chairman Dave May will move over to the Task Force.

Tobin said the Task Force would also be concerned with Hatteras Inlet’s navigation issues. Ferry and charter vessel traffic has been forced to use a longer channel because of severe shoaling in the former – and shorter - ferry channel.  According to Potter, no work is scheduled in Hatteras for at least the next 45 days.  

Meanwhile, a new memorandum of agreement has been hammered out between the Corps, the state and the county that would provide dredging on a more regular, as-needed basis in Oregon Inlet – which is surveyed weekly - and when necessary, in Hatteras Inlet.  

“Instead of being reactive,” said Donnie Potter, the chief of the physical support branch at the Corps’ Wilmington District, “this will give us a proactive approach.”  

Potter said that about $7 million annually would allow the Corps to address shoaling before it creates a serious hazard and becomes more difficult to remove.  
That has not been possible, he said, since the sidecaster dredge Schweizer was removed about 15 years ago from its long-time post at the Oregon Inlet Coast Guard Station and later, at Wanchese harbor.  But shoaling has worsened considerably since Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  

“The dynamics and the design of the inlet has changed a lot over the years as well,” Potter said.

A survey taken on Monday showed that the channel was about 100 feet wide and had an average depth of 8 feet – a vast improvement from last month’s unnavigable narrow passage with depths of 3 to 4 feet.

“It really showed significant changes,” Potter said.

Charter vessels have been using an alternate channel on the south side of the bridge for months. For a few days in late March, the Coast Guard closed the inlet to nearly all traffic until the dredge Merritt arrived.  But even with deeper water, it is safer for vessels, and for the bridge infrastructure, to go under the main span because it has protective fenders on either side.  

The dredge Merritt, Potter said, had worked about two weeks in the channel before the larger dredge Currituck could safely start on April 18, concentrating on the east side of the bridge.  The goal is to get the channel at least 10 feet deep and 150 feet wide.  The Currituck will work 24-hours a day through about May 6, weather permitting.  

Potter said that the troublesome Bodie Island spit that has repeatedly migrated into the channel has been cut in two by the dredge, a tactic that the Corps hopes will encourage the encroaching south end to be swept away by the current.

The county is currently looking for about $3.5 million to match state funds for the increased dredging. County Manager Bobby Outten said that a -cent tax provision in the state Senate budget, if approved, would be able to fund about $3.3 million of the amount.

An existing dredging agreement between the state and the Corps limits available funds to $4 million, Tobin said, hence the need for a new agreement that also includes local funds.  

Although Tobin said that the state funds cannot be nailed down until the next budget is passed in October, the state may be able to provide interim funds before then.

With the federal government backing away from funding coastal and waterway management projects, Tobin said, the state has stepped up to the plate.

“They realize the value of the inlet,” he said, referring to a recent analysis that cited an overall economic impact of $550 million for Oregon Inlet. “It’s a transportation corridor. That transportation corridor has to be maintained.”

Tobin said that if the inlet could be kept opened with regular maintenance, eventually out-of-town vessels will not be afraid to come though – which in turn would reverse the impacts of the inlet’s bad name.

 “Once you get that reputation that the inlet is good and maintained, those boats will come,” Tobin said. “ And the ripple effect of that commerce is those people go out to dinner. They rent houses.”
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