January 10, 2017

County, state closing in on interim solution to Hatteras Inlet shoaling


The long-sought interim solution to shoaling in Hatteras Inlet is close to happening, but members of the Dare County Waterways Commission are anxiously aware of the looming close of the window of opportunity.

An agreement between the county and the state is approaching approval, meaning that a persistent navigation problem will finally be addressed in the inlet’s Connecting Channel between the Ocracoke South Dock and the Inlet Gorge.

Two permits have been secured, and two more are close to being finalized, Wally Overman, Vice-Chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, told the panel at its regular monthly meeting Monday night in Manteo.  Costs will be shared by the state and the county.

“We are ready,” he said.

Once it is signed, the memorandum of agreement would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use its dredges working on nearby federal projects to do as many as four jobs a year for the county in the inlet’s non-federal waters, said James Medlock, civil works project manager for the Corps.

Being permitted to do multiple projects, he said, eliminates the need to apply each time more work is needed.

Medlock said it would probably take about 30 days to execute the agreement. It will also require a couple of weeks of advance notice for the Corps to schedule the work.

But several members of the Waterways Commission were worried that the dredging might not be done in time for the upcoming spring fishing tournament season.

Shoaling in the inlet last year spooked many out-of-town anglers, resulting in big decreases in revenue for Hatteras businesses and charter captains. Even those who managed to get through often required a local boater to escort them.

A moratorium on dredging stretches from April 1 to Sept. 30, making it obvious that dredging  needs to start soon to be completed in time.

Dan Oden, a marina owner and a commission member, said he is already getting numerous phone calls inquiring about inlet conditions.

“I’ll tell you, they’re not going to do what they did last year,” he said, alluding to their dicey trip to and from the ocean.

But Overman said that even if the work edges into the moratorium, he believes that a request can made for an exemption.

In addition to Oden, other commission members in attendance were Chairman David May, Fletcher Willey, Ernie Foster, Danny Couch and Steve “Creature” Coulter. Member Ronald Lowe was absent.

“Hopefully, the moon and stars will line up with this and we’ll be able to take advantage of a real asset,” said Couch, who also represents Hatteras on the Board of Commissioners.

Despite the continued navigational issues in the inlet, conditions have been improved by recent dredging by the Corps. Steve Shriver, team leader of the Corps’ survey section, said that the sidecast dredge Merritt has been clearing shoals at the Buoy 15 and Buoy 16 intersection for the last 10 days.

“They’ve done an amazing amount of work,” he told the panel. “They’ve moved a lot of material.”

Joen Petersen, chief of plants for the Corps, added that it is difficult to determine the volume of sand that sidecasting removes, so the focus is more on the results.

“There’s significantly more water flow going through there,” he said.

An increasingly tricky S-turn in the channel at Buoys 14 and 15 near Barney’s Slough has made for tough situations. Last month, the Coast Guard moved five buoys to mark the curved section, but that didn’t stop a minor collision between a ferry and a private vessel on New Year’s Eve.

Buoys at the S-turn are expected to be relocated to the nearby dredged area on Thursday, said Manuel Gonzales, officer in command at the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Team in Wanchese.

Jed Dixon, deputy director of the state Ferry Division, told commissioners that the ferries would be able to stop running the S-turn once the buoys are moved. The channel there has been especially narrow, he explained, making it tight – or with larger vessels, impossible – for two boats to pass at the same time. 

“It’ll make it safer for everyone,” Dixon said .  “It’ll really help us when it gets busy.”

But as is often the case recently in Hatteras Inlet,  where one place improves, another gets worse.

 Although it was only 60 days ago that the new state dredge had cleared the entrance to the south ferry basin at Ocracoke – its very first project – Dixon said it now has to come back and do it again.

Water by the south dock is “ripping through there like a river,” he said, and sand seems to be peeling off a nearby shoal hill.  He said he plans to look into the possibility of using rip rap to secure the mound.

“It’s unreal how much it’s changed,” he said. “It’s a nonstop battle.”

The next Dare County Waterways Commission meeting will be held Feb. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Fessenden Center in Buxton.

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