June 14, 2017

Short Term Dredging is Completed, but Connecting
Channel isn’t Out of Hot Water Yet


The short term dredging of the Connecting Channel has paved the way for mariners to travel through Hatteras Inlet, but plans need to be made to keep the channel open in the weeks and months to come. 

This was the overlying message at the Dare County Waterways Commission meeting, which was held on June 12 at the Fessenden Center in Buxton. 

All eight members of the commission were present at the Monday night meeting, as well as representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the NCDOT Ferry Division, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The short-term dredging project, performed by the sidecaster dredge, the Merritt, was recently finished after a few weeks of on-and-off work, effectively completing the job before the extended June 15 deadline.

“Today we had more big boat traffic than we had all year, and no one had a problem getting out there,” reported commission member Dan Oden.

“There’s a little zig-zag getting into the gorge, and it could be a bit wider, but we’re making it through and it’s certainly better than it has been,” added commission member Steve “Creature” Coulter. “Hatteras has probably had more out-of-harbor business today than we have had in a year.”

But despite the temporary win of having the Connecting Channel dredged - and having a permit in hand that will make upcoming maintenance dredging an easier process than it has been in the past – the commission members were already focused on the next task at hand.

“If you don’t [dredge] it again between now and October, you’re going to lose it,” cautioned Joen Petersen, chief of plants for the Corps.

Dredging the Connecting Channel in Hatteras Inlet is allowed from October 1 through March 31, but after this timeframe, an extension is required from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), CAMA and the Corps of Engineers to receive permission to dredge outside the permitted season.

An extension has already been granted twice to conduct the most recent dredging, and the Waterways Commission agreed that the extension process needed to be initiated once again to arrange for a second, late-summer dredging.

“We need to make some plans, just in case,” said Commissioner Oden. “Last year when it closed up, it closed up quick.”

“Start with the county, and go up the ladder,” advised Roger Bullock, the deputy chief of operations for the Corps' Wilmington District. “Dare County owns the permit, and [the process] is similar to the exact same extension(s) you did earlier this year.”

“We believe you’re going to need a dredging event between now and October,” he added.

Another upcoming wrinkle is the fact that the Merritt – the sidecast dredge that has been doing the heavy lifting in the shallow Connecting Channel waters – will be out of commission for roughly six months starting in October for repairs.

The Meriden and the Currituck – two hopper dredges – will be available after the Merritt is out of the water, but a minimum depth is required for these two vessels to provide maintenance dredging in the channel.

“Routine dredging is going to be extremely important to maintain the minimum depth required [for those vessels],” said Bullock. “And quarterly dredging events are always best.”

“My notes are going right to the county manager,” said Danny Couch, Waterways Commission and Dare County Board of Commissioners member. “I will be happy to put in the request. We’ve come so far, and we can’t go back to zero.”

The June 12 Waterways Commission meeting was also attended by two special guests – Hyde County Commissioner Tom Pahl and longtime Ocracoke captain Rudy Austin – who were there to gain a little insight into the commission process.

“We decided to form an [Ocracoke] waterways commission a couple of months ago,” said Pahl. “We have had problems, especially around the ferry channel, and we expect around July that we will have a motion to form a commission.”

“We’re here because we want to learn from you” he added. “We are here to learn, and to establish communication between the two commissions so that we can hopefully work together in the future.”

“We’re in trouble,” added Austin, who worked with the ferry division starting in 1970. “Anyone who owns a boat knows that boating and dredging go hand in hand. That’s why we want to learn from you guys – you’ve been there, and have done it all.”

“We would welcome any associations, contacts, and partnerships that this could bring us,” said Commissioner Couch. “There is strength in numbers.”

And while both the Ocracoke representatives and the meeting attendees praised the efforts of the Waterways Commission on the short-term dredging, all parties involved noted that there was plenty of work still to be done.

Besides the need for an upcoming maintenance dredge before October 1, the commission also discussed the Rollison channel, and the ensuing issue of where to put the dredge spoils, or “material,” since it was not allowed to be deposited on Bird Island, per the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

“There’s no place to deposit it because the sand is ‘finer’ than what’s there,” said commissioner Ernie Foster, “but if there’s no long-term solution, Rollison channel will shoal up.”

A suggestion was made – and accepted - to look into the “thin layer disposal” option, which would add a layer of material on marsh grasses, and effectively help keep the grasses rooted. Reaching out to Dare County to find potential places to put the material was also discussed.

“We should celebrate the short-term solution, but we need to [stay focused] on the long term solution,” said Commissioner David May. “The long term solution is going to be a lot of work.”

The next Dare County Waterways Commission meeting will be on July 10 at 7 p.m. at the Dare County Administration Building in Manteo.

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