August 18, 2016

Hatteras Inlet dredging plan discussed at Waterways Commission meeting


The Dare County Waterways Commission -- formerly known as the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission -- got a look at Dare County's dredging plan to provide access through Hatteras Inlet at its monthly meeting in Buxton on Monday evening, Aug. 16.

The Waterways Commission's immediate goal is to keep the Connecting Channel west of the Inlet Gorge -- or the long route -- that maritime traffic has been using open, and the long-term goal is to reopen the shorter route east of the gorge, which is a much more complicated project, logistically.

The plan that was introduced at Tuesday’s meeting focused on the immediate issue of providing access through the inlet on the western side of the gorge.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, there were also several Waterways Commission issues that were addressed by the Dare County Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Monday evening, Aug. 15.

One issue was the name of the committee itself, as there were two groups that were set up to advise the commissioners on inlet issues that included "Oregon Inlet" in the title. One was the Oregon Inlet Task Force, and the other was the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission. As a result, it was decided by the Board of Commissions that the name should be changed to the Dare County Waterways Commission.

The other issue related to Waterways Commission members and attendance at the monthly meetings. The commission did not have a quorum for either the June or July meeting, and one of the new members who was appointed in June, Holly White, never served on the commission because she no longer lives in Dare County. In addition, another long-term member, Arvin Midgett, had recently resigned for health reasons.

Therefore, at the Monday night meeting, the Board of Commissioners appointed two new members to the commission -- Dan Oden of Oden's Dock marina, and Ronald Lowe, a retired dentist, boat owner, and member of the Hatteras Marlin club.

All members with the exception of Lowe were present at the Tuesday's Waterways Commission meeting, as well as a number of Dare County commissioners.  Chairman Robert Woodard, Vice Chairman Wally Overman, and Commissioner Warren Judge, were all present, as well as the County Manager Bobby Outten, and Commissioner Allen Burrus, who also serves on the Waterways panel.

The meeting was also attended by representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The Army Corps representatives included the captains of two dredges that operate in Hatteras and Oregon inlets --  Bob Mason of the Merritt and Martin Willis of the Murden.

The meeting started with a review of the new surveys for Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet which were completed within the past week. The Oregon Inlet surveys were performed on Aug. 11 and 12, and dredging priority areas were pointed out on the survey, as well as the fact that there was no significant difference to the Oregon Inlet Bar from previous surveys.

The Hatteras Inlet survey was performed on Aug. 8, and the Corps of Engineers chief of navigation Roger Bullock outlined the “bad spot” or dogleg where the long channel now used by both the ferries and local boat captains makes a turn and where the Merritt has been dredging.

The dynamic spot has caused issues for dredging headway, as Bullock explained. The sidecast dredge takes mud off the bottom and throws it 75 feet off to the side, but eventually the material comes running back to the vessel, causing the dredge to run over it again. The team can also combat the issue by digging deeper, but in either case, it takes a little longer to get the work done.

“It takes twice as long, but it’s that or nothing,” said Bullock. “There are a couple ways to deal with it but that’s a tough place to dredge.”

Both committee members and meeting attendees asked about re-instating a portion of the Rollinson Channel short route, but, according to a recent survey of the area, the part of the channel that boat captains would like to see dredged is too shallow to get a dredge into.

Bullock also said that there is no guarantee that at this time the short route could be a viable option.

“Without knowing what it will do, it’s not safe to [proceed],” said Bullock. “You need to take into account that the vessel is 165 feet  long and is backing in and out of the channel… it takes forever to make headway on prospecting work like that.”

He also noted that Hatteras Inlet only has foot of tide, versus Oregon Inlet which has 2 feet of tide. As a result, the dredging crew does not have the ability to target a rough spot during a high tide like they do at Oregon Inlet.

“We kept getting beat back – Mother Nature is working harder than us,” said Bullock.

The surveys on the Rollinson Channel are conducted every two months, unless there is significant change.

It was also brought up at the meeting that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission had hosted a meeting in the past few weeks to discuss re-establishing an island in the inlet like the dredge island that was there for many years and may have help protect the channel. But it was also noted that the project would require regular maintenance, as well as regular funding

“We already know that if you put an island up there and replenish it, it will stay – it has for 60 years,” said commission member Allen Burrus. “Unfortunately, it will take constant work.”

As funds were discussed, it was also mentioned by several committee members that for many years, Oregon Inlet received millions in funds while Hatteras Inlet only received $50,000 per year.

“Up until five years ago we received $50,000 per year because we didn’t need it,” said commission member Ernie Foster, a charter boat captain. But the landscape has clearly changed since Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Bullock also explained that federal funds could not be relied upon as there was only $75 million  in funds to cover all the “low use navigation” ports throughout the country – which includes Hatteras Inlet. “That’s why the state is helping out,” he said. “It may not be an emphasis to the U.S., but it’s important to the economy of North Carolina [to keep the inlet open.]”

This conversation and question-and-answer session with public attendees segued into the introduction of Ken Wilson, the client program manager for Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina Inc., out of Wilmington, N.C.

The company has recently been hired by Dare County to prepare the necessary documents and obtain the permits for dredging the Connecting Channel. Wilson noted that there was a meeting  in Washington, N.C., earlier on Tuesday to discuss the plan with some of the federal and state agencies that will be involved. 

The meeting was attended by Dare County representatives including Woodard, Overman, Outten, and Waterways Commission member Steve “Creature” Coulter, a Hatteras charter boat captain. Some of the agencies attending included Tidewater Electric, the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, Army Corps of Engineers, Division of Water Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries.

Wilson displayed a map of the upcoming dredging project, as he described the plan in detail.

“The contract we have with the county right now -- and we’ll try to get permits as quickly as possible – will allow us to do three things,” he said. “It will allow the Corps to use their dredge to dredge a channel following the deep water.”

He showed a map in which a dotted black line boxed in a large area near the Connecting Channel or West Channel region that was proposed for the dredging, as well as a smaller dotted line that indicated where the channel would most likely be dredged.

“We had a meeting today where some of the state and federal agencies asked if we could close up that box a little bit, but we’re going to do a bit of a balancing act to make sure that box is big enough to follow whatever slough opens up for that area in the coming years,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have enough flexibility to dredge wherever it’s easiest for the Corps to dredge.

“This orange line is to show the dimensions of the channel that will likely be dredged. That’s the dimensions of the channel that the DOT tried to dredge several months back,” he added.

The second objective of the permits is to allow the Corps of Engineers to do maintenance dredging across the ocean bar to make sure they can get that hopper dredge across the ocean bar if they need to.

And the third objective is to establish a nearshore disposal area on the northeastern edge of Ocracoke Island. Wilson noted that the National Park Service was not in attendance Tuesday, but that he was optimistic that establishing the disposal area would not be an issue.

In addition, he noted that there was reason to be optimistic about the power cables that are submerged in the channel’s path as well.

“The power company was out there today, and they’re confident that they sunk that [power] cable 6 feet below where the water depth was at the time they laid it,” he said. “We’re encouraged that we have a large enough corridor in there [to dredge without affecting power cables.]”

The documents required by the various agencies will take an initial 90 days to prepare, and then another three to four months for the agencies to respond, which means that the project could begin in the next six to seven months.

“Ideally we’re hoping that by wintertime, the permits will be in place and we’ll be able to move forward,” said Wilson.

The meeting closed with an update from the U.S. Coast Guard, which had gotten the vessel, Smilax, through to move several buoys in the inlet.

Also, a potential new issue on the horizon, was brought up by Foster, who said that shoaling had begun to develop at the mouth of the harbor at Hatteras on the northeast side near the breakwater.

“We’ve got a year before it becomes an issue,” said Foster.

The prospect of establishing a public boat launch on the county-owned soundfront sites. Outten said that the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission had recently scouted county-owned sites in Buxton and Rodanthe. The Buxton site, he said, was deemed  too small for a public launch but the Rodanthe site is a possibility. 

The next meeting of the Waterways Commission will be on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. at the Dare County Administration in Manteo.

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