April 13, 2016

Waterways Commission makes recommendations to county board


Dare County's  Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission voted unanimously at Monday night's meeting to ask the Board of Commissioners to pursue both a long-term and short-term solution for clearing out clogged channels in Hatteras Inlet.

Several dozen Hatteras islanders, mostly boat captains, attended the commission meeting for yet another discussion of what can be done to give vessels the access they need to deeper water to get them safely between the ocean and Hatteras Harbor.

After almost two hours of discussion, the commission members voted unanimously to ask the county to use a hopper dredge for the short-term fix to clear what is being called "the Connecting Channel."

The recommendation is that the county bring in the hopper dredge across the ocean bar and through the inlet gorge and the connecting channel into Sloop Channel, which runs beside Ocracoke. Commission members hope this can be achieved under the existing state NCDOT permits and that the work can be tied into an existing Memorandum of Agreement.

Commission members would like to see about 10 days of dredging this spring to unclog the short Connecting Channel and more dredging in the fall.

In the long-term, they have asked the county to pursue dredging in the hopelessly dredged old ferry channel, the shortest, quickest route out the inlet and to the Ocracoke Ferry Terminal.

They also plan to ask the Dare County Tourism Board to fund a long-talked-about economic study of Hatteras Inlet.

County manager Bobby Outten said in an interview after the meeting that the office of state Sen. Bill Cook is working to start the "political process" of getting a Memorandum of Agreement between the state and the federal government to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use one of its hopper dredges in the Connecting Channel.

No memorandum currently exists, he said.

And that's been at the crux of the problem ever since shoaling problems in Hatteras Inlet became a larger issue than normal after hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012.

In Oregon Inlet, the Army Corps has been able to dredge just about anywhere it has needed to, while in Hatteras Inlet, it has been limited to dredging in the federally authorized Rollinson Project, which includes the old, short ferry route but not the new, longer ferry route or the area now called the Connecting Channel.

Local and visiting boats have been taking the longer ferry route through Barney Slough, a naturally deep channel, to near Ocracoke and then across the Connecting Channel to the Inlet Gorge and out into the ocean.

However, late last summer the Connecting Channel was so badly shoaled up that the U.S. Coast Guard removed its aids to navigation in the inlet and has not put them back in place.  The result is that it is dangerous for mariners who are unfamiliar with the inlet area to navigate the channel from the ocean bar to the Hatteras docks.

Last fall, the state undertook a dredging project with the Ferry Division's small pipeline dredge in the Connecting Channel.  It got most, but not all of the job done, before conditions became too rough in the dynamic channel for the dredge to continue.

For a while, boat captains were back in business, but many have said at various meetings in the past several months, including Monday night, that the Connecting Channel has shoaled up again.

"The area where the state did the dredging -- it's gone," said commercial fisherman Jeff Oden. "I can't get to work."

Oden said his boat only draws 5 1/2 feet of water, and there are tournaments coming up that normally would attract larger boats, but not under these conditions, he said.

"They aren't going to be coming," he said.

Visiting boats heading to Hatteras for the great fishing in season and the tournaments are economically important to the island's marinas and to other businesses, such as motels and restaurants.

Two staff members of the Army Corps' Wilmington District  attended the meeting -- Steve Shriver, team leader of the survey section, and Donnie Potter, chief of the physical support branch.

They showed surveys and answered questions but were at a loss to suggest a solution.

"Every time I go across Oregon Inlet," Oden said, "it just burns me up to see those two dredges about bumping into each other."

The Army Corps is working almost non-stop now on pro-active dredging in Oregon Inlet with some paid for from shrinking federal funds and some paid for from the county's new Inlet Dredging Fund and the state's 3 to 1 match.

Oden lamented that the Corps' dredge Currituck could clear the short Connecting Channel in two or three days.

Potter agreed, and added, "I can't put it in there if it's against the law, but, yes, it could do it in two or three days."

The irony is that there are some funds available now for dredging that weren't a few years ago -- from the state and county -- but the area that needs dredging is still a "no man's land" with no agency able to take care of successfully unclogging it.

Potter said that there is $1.27 million available from the federal government for Hatteras Inlet funding during the current fiscal year.

"Everybody's passing the buck every time I come to one of these meetings," said another boat captain while heads were nodding in agreement.

Monday's meeting was the first for two newly appointed members of the Waterways Commission -- Danny Couch of Buxton, who is running opposed in November for Allen Burrus' seat on the Board of Commissioners, and Steve "Creature" Coulter, a charter boat captain.  Dave May was elected chairman of the commission at the end of the meeting and Ernie Foster was elected vice-chairman.

Other members present were Burrus and long-time commission member Fletcher Willey. Arvin Midgett and Jim Tobin did not attend.

The Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commissioner used to have all of its meetings in Manteo and this year began alternating between Manteo and the Fessenden Center in Buxton.  The commission meets on the second Monday of the month at 7 p.m.

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