September 24, 2015

Finding solutions to Hatteras Inlet
shoaling moving at snail's pace

Finding remedies for clogged channels in Hatteras Inlet has been moving along at a typical bureaucratic crawl, spurring frustrated members of the Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission to investigate whether dredging the “cut-through” area near Ocracoke could be a faster way to provide ocean passage for charter vessels.

“We have the permits to do that now,” Jed Dixon, deputy director of the state Ferry Division and a commission member, told the panel at its meeting Tuesday night.
“You’ve got to get a survey. You’ve got to get the money, and you’ve got to have a place to put the sand.”

The area, a natural slough on the backside of the South Ferry Channel near Ocracoke, is more protected and deeper than the exposed inlet.

“This has been stable all summer and all fall,” said Steve Coulter, captain of the Sea Creature, “but we can’t get anybody to look there.”

Dixon said that the state Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of the ferries, has the ability to do the survey, but it does not have the estimated $10,000 to $20,000 needed to do the work. The DOT has recently acquired the survey equipment for Oregon Inlet, he added.

Also, a new state dredge will be available probably by March, he said.

“I think it will have more capability than what we have now,” Dixon said.

Hatteras Inlet has been widening at an alarming rate in recent years, as the tip of Hatteras Island is eroding at an equally alarming rate. As a result, shoaling has increased dramatically and the inlet is more open and exposed to the ocean.

Ferry traffic had to be relocated a few years ago to a longer channel, which then became the authorized federal channel. The shorter channel, therefore, no longer qualified for maintenance by the Army Corps of Engineers, or the state. 

In August, a part of that old channel still transited by charter vessels to access the ocean became so shoaled, with the worst spot having as little as 2.5 feet of water, the Coast Guard ultimately had to remove the buoys there for safety reasons.

Since the area fell inside a regulatory “no man’s land,” neither the federal or state governments has the authority to maintain it.  Charter captains are still managing to pick their way through the inlet, but just barely.

Even in some places in the inlet that the state is authorized to maintain, the state dredge has not been capable of doing the work.  Until the new dredge is used, Dixon said, it will not be known what it can handle in Hatteras Inlet.

The commission agreed to look into getting a survey done in the cut-through area.

Meanwhile, Dixon said, the Ferry Division has secured a Coastal Area Management Act permit to have a side-cast dredge, rather than the pipeline dredge, used to dredge in the short channel and is expecting the Corps permit shortly. 

The change would allow the state to dredge under its existing permit. Once the comment period closes on Oct. 5, it could take another 30 days to complete the approval process. Arrival of the dredge will then depend on weather conditions and crew availability.

Shoaling at a “dog-leg” in the Buoy 14-15 area has caused the ferries some bumping on the bottom.

Dare County, the state and the Corps are working on finalizing a Memorandum of Agreement that will allow the county and state to provide funds to the Corps for dredge projects.

But Dixon expressed frustration with how unwieldy the process has been to get work done in the inlet, especially if conditions require repeated attention.

“Of course, we need some dredging done right now, but we need to work on making it so it’s not so cumbersome to get dredging done in that area,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way than what we’re doing right now .

“Honestly, we can get the permits changed, do the dredging, and if it fills back in, it’s back to square one.”

Dixon also said that, no matter the problem, only certain parts of the inlet are able to be maintained by the state.

“NCDOT is not going to take responsibility if the ferries are not running there,” he said.

Similarly, Col. Kevin Landers, the Corps’ district commander, told the commission that his hands are already tied by budget constraints, and it’s hard to offer ways to help Hatteras without federal authority.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I have authorized projects that are getting no money.”

It was the first time Landers has had an opportunity to attend a commission meeting since Hatteras Inlet became a major concern this summer. Landers agreed it would be valuable to have more insight into how policy and regulations can be adapted to the changing conditions in Hatteras.

“All this do-able,” he said. “We just collectively have to figure out a way ahead.”

In addition to pursuing the MOA with the Corps and the state – which will allow a northern route to be dredged through the inlet -- Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said in an interview that the county will concurrently work to get the new surveying done at the short route by the inlet’s gorge on the southern side. 

“We’re running both tracks simultaneously,” he said, “and we’ll do the one that works best.”
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Solutions to Hatteras Inlet shoaling remain elusive

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