Rom Whitaker, captain of the Release, who has been running his charter boat out of Hatteras Inlet for several decades, had some words for the Dare County Board of Commissioners when they came to Hatteras for a town hall meeting on Feb. 4.
Much of the meeting had focused on Dare County’s plan to nourish the beach in north Buxton to protect Highway 12 and who is going to pay what to get it done. That discussion grew into more talk of places on Hatteras Island that need more sand on the beach — in Avon, between Frisco and Hatteras, and the list goes on.
However, Whitaker and commercial fisherman Jeff Oden wanted to talk about another topic — the shoaling of the channels in Hatteras Inlet that threatens lives and livelihoods.
“There enough sand in Hatteras Inlet to fix all the problems we got,” Whitaker said to applause and laughter from the crowd of about 250 islanders who attended the meeting.
The irony of his statement was lost on no one that night.
While many Hatteras beaches are starved for sand, the channels in Hatteras Inlet upon which we depend for ferries to and from Ocracoke and for access to and from the Atlantic Ocean for commercial and recreational fishing are so choked with sand that they are at times impassable and, at other times, downright dangerous.
Too much sand in the inlets, too little sand on the beaches.
Seems like there ought to be an easy fix for this problem, but with all the federal and state regulations, it just doesn’t work the way common sense tells us it should.
Right now as winter ends and we head into spring, we are facing serious challenges in the efforts to unclog Hatteras Inlet and nourish the beach in north Buxton.
This week, let’s look at Hatteras Inlet
A dredging project that got underway last November and was completed in mid-January aimed to clear out a channel between Sloop Channel and the Inlet Gorge — a channel that is crucial to recreational and commercial boats to get to and from the ocean.
The section to be dredged was only about 800 feet long and it was shoaled mostly on its east and west end.
However, the little section falls into what has become known as a “no-man’s land.” It is an area in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not have federal approval to conduct dredging operations.
In the past, funding has been the big issue with keeping inlets dredged. The federal government is budgeting less money each year, and state and local governments are having to pick up the slack.
The Dare County Board of Commissioners and the N.C. General Assembly both have addressed this issue.
Dare County has created an inlet and waterways fund to do proactive dredging in Oregon and Hatteras inlets, and the state also has an inlet and waterways management fund that provides a three-quarters match for what local governments pay.
So, that part is better. Dare County had some funds to pay for the most recent Hatteras Inlet dredging project, but the Army Corps could not do it because it doesn’t have statutory authority.
The really bad news is that it takes an Act of Congress to give the Army Corps the authority to dredge where it needs to.
Late last year, state Sen. Bill Cook sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to amend the existing federal authorization to be more inclusive of the entire waterway that is known as Hatteras Inlet. Because of changes to the inlet over time, the current federal authorization, established in the 1940s, has boundaries that are no longer relevant.
The Board of Commissioners then passed a resolution supporting Cook’s request, and asking that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and federal entities, expand the federal authorization to include all channels between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island and to also include the Inlet Gorge and the ocean bar for access to the open waters of the Atlantic.
The expansion, the resolution says, is a matter of public safety and economic necessity. The commissioners have said they support an economic study of the impact of Hatteras Inlet commerce, but nothing has happened yet.
So, when the shoaling reached crisis proportions last August and the U.S. Coast Guard pulled its aids to navigation and urged mariners not to use the inlet, the county turned to the N.C. Department of Transportation for help.
The dredging project was finally undertaken by the state’s pipeline dredge, Carolina, which is not designed to work in the extremely dynamic currents in parts of Hatteras Inlet, including the part being dredged.
Three-fourths of the estimated $452,000 cost was to be paid by the state; the county share was to be $113,000. A memorandum of agreement had been finalized between the parties before the work began. The sand pumped out of the inlet was used to rebuild dunes flattened by storms last fall. (Ironically, they were flattened again by a storm on Super Bowl Sunday, just after the dredging project ended.)
As it turned out, the work was completed several weeks early at a cost of only $273,000.
However, Hatteras boat captains have not been happy with the result.
“Thank you for finally getting Hatteras Inlet dredged,” Jeff Oden said at the town hall meeting — even though he said six miles has been added to the trip in and out of the inlet for the watermen.
“There’s been some money spent here (on Hatteras Inlet),” Whitaker said that evening, “and, in my opinion, the job’s not done.”
The clogged area on the west end of the dredge project has been cleared out, but captains, such as Whitaker, say it’s only partially cleared out on the east end.
The inlet is only 6 feet deep in places, Whitaker said, which may be navigable for some of the local boats, but he said that’s not enough water for the bigger boats that come to Hatteras for tournaments and such.
Hatteras marinas depend on boats coming here to fish and for tournaments. Local captains say the channel from the ocean to Hatteras harbor is not safe for captains who are not familiar with the area — and these captains avoid coming here.
The shoaling in the channel also affects the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to emergencies.
“If you ask me the dredging project stopped short,” said Brian Patteson, captain of the Stormy Petrel in an e-mail last week to the Island Free Press. “Yes, (it’s) nice that it didn?t cost as much as expected, but they didn?t really accomplish much either.”
“We?ve been one of the few boats sailing in recent weeks, and what I am seeing in that new channel is the potential for more problems,” Patteson added. “It is marginal at times of low tide, and most days we have generally higher than normal water. When we get some really low water, there are going to be problems.”
At a Board of Commissioners meeting on Feb. 15, Commissioner Wally Overman addressed criticisms of the dredging project.
He said the project was not ended early to save money but for safety concerns.
Overman said that when the shoaling was cleared on the west end of the area to be dredged, it created a strong current in the area. He said he confirmed with the state Ferry Division that for safety reasons, a decision was made to stop the dredging on the clogged east end of the area when a depth of 6.5 feet was reached.
The ferry division has said before that the small, flat-bottomed pipeline dredge, Carolina, is not designed to operate in swift ocean currents in the inlet. The state has a new dredge coming online, but it, too, will be the same design that will limit its usefulness in dynamic areas.
Commissioner Allen Burrus of Hatteras village noted at a Feb. 1 board meeting that boat captains were still experiencing problems with shallower water at the east end of the dredge project next to the Gorge. At that meeting, Jed Dixon, deputy director of the Ferry Division, said that it was hoped that the strong flow of water and currents through the area would open it up more and keep it open.
Meanwhile, Hatteras captains are finding it tough to watch U.S. Army Corps dredges working almost full-time in Oregon Inlet, while they continue to risk their boats — and even their lives — with each trip in and out of Hatteras Inlet.
It’s got to be frustrating.
Overman said that the state is scheduled to survey the dredged area as soon as weather allows to see how deep the channel is on the east end — and on the west end, which, according to some reports, may also be having problems again.
Local and state officials will keep working on the issue of the U.S. Army Corps’ authorization, which is beyond frustrating.
“We need some assets that only the Army Corps has,” Overman said in a phone interview today.
“I hope they plan to revisit it soon and finish the job they started,” Patteson said last week. “It needs dredging on both ends. And down the road, we might even need dredging down along the gorge close to the bar, the way things are closing up there. I hope that someone has considered that, and I hope the red tape is being cut to facilitate dredging all the way to Hatteras Inlet bar if necessary.”
Coming Soon: Too much sand here, not enough sand there: Part 2. When will Buxton see beach nourishment?