September 2, 2015

Solutions to Hatteras Inlet shoaling remain elusive


North winds and a moon tide have recently improved passage through Hatteras Inlet, allowing charter boats to continue to inch their way to and from the ocean. But it is still unclear what the best short-term solution will be to the worsening navigational problems in the waterway.

“We’re turning over every rock we can,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard.

Some Dare officials met last week on different days with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, and Gov. Pat McCrory, and they were able to raise concerns about conditions in Hatteras and Oregon inlets.

Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said that both politicians were supportive of the county’s efforts to find the fastest way to free up funds and obtain authorization for necessary dredging in Hatteras Inlet. They expressed an interest in working with U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, and Rep. Walter Jones, R-3rd District, in communications with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. 

“We are certainly doing everything we can do to get that inlet open and help the fishermen,” Outten said.

Watermen and charter captains have been struggling for much of the summer to transit parts of the channel that has had as little as 2.5 feet of water. Fixing the problem has been complicated because the spot is in a “no man’s land” that falls outside both federal and state maintenance responsibility. 

The U.S. Coast Guard determined last month that the buoys in the shoaled section needed to be pulled because the water depth is dangerously shallow.

But without the markers, boaters coming through the inlet from the ocean – especially those seeking safe harbor and others who are unfamiliar with the conditions -- will find themselves essentially in the middle with no guidance, said Beth Midgett, whose family owns Teach’s Lair and Hatteras Landing marinas.

Midgett said that out of necessity, the charter captains plan to replace the buoys with their own poly balls.

“There has to be markings,” she said.

Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the Corps’ Wilmington District, said that a recent Corps survey map showed the area of severe shoaling between the inlet gorge and Ocracoke.

“It’s the channel alignment that the fleet had,” he said.

On Aug. 21, he said, the Coast Guard decided that the navigational aids there needed to be removed. Aids elsewhere in the inlet and in the current ferry channel would not be affected.

Coast Guard Master Chief Brent Zado, who is stationed at Hatteras Inlet, said that weather has so far prevented the buoys from being pulled. If conditions allow, he said, they likely will be removed this week.

Bullock said that the Corps has no authorization to dredge in the area that is creating the current problem.

“We have never worked beyond the inlet gorge,” he said.

But Midgett contends that the Corps’ authority to dredge the channel is tied to following the "best water," not simply the fixed metes and bounds. Otherwise, she said, it would make no sense to maintain an inlet subject to dramatic impacts of currents and storms.

The Corps is authorized to dredge the federal portion of Rollinson Channel. But the state Ferry Division in recent years had been forced, because of extreme shoaling, to switch to a longer route beyond the federal channel.  At that point, Midgett said, the gorge area became the best water.

“It’s what is making the ‘no man’s land,’” she said. “To me, it’s the crux of the whole problem. It’s not our fault that we can’t use the authorized channel. Best water is now, essentially, the long ferry route.” 

Bullock, however, said that the authorization specifically allows dredging a channel 10 feet deep and 100 feet wide “by the direct route” from Hatteras Inlet gorge to Rollinson channel.

That limits the Corps, he said, to working straight across the inlet from the ocean to Hatteras Island – essentially, the short route that has been abandoned. The alternate channel is not under their jurisdiction.

“As far as it being authorized,” Bullock said, “there is no history of traveling in that direction – ever.”

Bullock also said that the suggestion to use a channel “widener” would not be practical.

“There’s no established route in the federal portion,” he said. “Where would you place a widener if you don’t have a federal channel?”

But Bullock said that the Corps will continue to survey the area, including the short route, to look for improvements.

“We’re listening to everybody,” he said, “and if there is a break, we’ll certainly get out there.”

A memorandum of agreement between the Corps, the state and Dare County is currently being worked on, Outten said, which will allow the Corps to accept state and local funds to do the dredging. Since it will not be project-specific, the agreement will not require Congressional approval, he said.

“We’re hoping to have that in place pretty soon,” he said. 

It is estimated that the Corps’ side-cast dredge would have to work about four to five days in the targeted area, at a cost of about $12,000 a day.

Considering the relatively low cost, getting the project authorized and permitted has been the main hurdle.

“Really, the money hasn’t been the hang-up,” Outten said.

So far, despite the difficulty and extra time it takes to get out, the Coast Guard is not viewing the situation as an emergency, Zado said.

“We can still currently navigate through that area,” he said. “We can, in fact, respond. We’re still doing our patrols each day to make sure we can transit.”

Officials ponder solution to latest round of Hatteras Inlet shoaling
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