As mariners look ahead to the spring fishing tournament season, the Dare County Waterways Commission is hopeful that maintenance issues in Hatteras Inlet finally can be addressed in a timely manner.
“We don’t want to wait until the last minute,” Commission Chair Steve “Creature” Coulter said at Monday’s meeting in Manteo. “We want it fixed and maintained so we can tell the people to come.”
With permission from the Oregon Inlet Task Force, the new state dredge Miss Katie is on track to be able to work in the Connector Channel by early February, waterways administrator Barton Grover said in later interview. The Oregon Inlet panel, which controls the dredge’s schedule, voted at its Tuesday meeting to approve the Commission’s motion requesting the Hatteras work, Grover said.
There will likely be another request for the Miss Katie to go back to Hatteras at the end of March, he added. The goal is to prevent another shoaling crisis by keeping the channel in good shape before the six-month sea turtle moratorium begins on April 1. But work is possible in the warmer months with permission from regulatory agencies.
The 156-foot shallow-draft hopper dredge, christened on Oct. 13 at a ceremony in Wanchese, is a public-private partnership with Greenville, N.C.-based EJE Dredging Service, built with a $15 million allocation from the state Shallow Draft Navigation fund. EJE owns and operates the Miss Katie, and the Oregon Inlet Task Force has been charged by Dare County to manage the dredge, including its operation schedule and project monitoring.
In return for EJE dredging in the county at a reduced rate for 10 years, the state loan will be forgiven, according to the contract. The agreement also can be renewed.
Although Miss Katie had a bumpy start that sent it to the repair shop, it has recently had success in helping to dredge an alternate channel in Oregon Inlet. Severe shoaling at the Basnight Bridge navigation span channel this past summer became impossible to maintain, resulting in the passage being disestablished.
The Miss Katie coordinated working with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges in opening up a new 100-foot wide, 10-foot-deep route southwest of the original channel, which was recently authorized and marked. The Corps is in the process of seeking authorization that would allow two additional feet of channel depth.
Grover explained that the Corps has been monitoring the alternate channel for the last few years, and decided that it would be a better option for the navigation channel. Part of the concern was that the dredge, or any vessel over 100 tons, is not allowed to go under the bridge unless it is within the navigation span between bents (bridge piles) No. 20-28. The deepest part of the new channel, he said, passes under the bridge at about bent 22.
The Miss Katie, which has recently been crewed 24 hours a day in three 8-hour shifts, has been able to save about an hour of travel from its homeport in Wanchese by anchoring overnight just west of Pea Island on the south end of the bridge, Grover said. The hope is when the Miss Katie starts work in the Hatteras Inlet Connector Channel it will be able to anchor closer to Ocracoke to save a similar amount of time and money.
Since it would be the first trip to Hatteras for the dredge, it may need to adjust work to the different conditions after it starts the project in February.
“I think a week to 10 days is a good measure of how effective they can be in the Connector Channel,” Ken Willson, Dare County dredge projects consultant with Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina, speaking remotely, told commissioners. “Then maybe monitor it and come back and do a clean-up at the end of March.”
For the time being, the Miss Katie only has a permit, through Dare County’s agreement with the state and the Corps, to dredge the Connector Channel. But Willson said the Corps’ recent expansion of its authority to cover the entire horseshoe channel kicks in a new requirement that certifies that their project will not interfere with the Corps’ work in the inlet. That step is expected to be completed within days.
Grover said in the interview that the county’s goal is to expand its permit so the state dredge has more flexibility to work in other areas in the inlet.
Meanwhile, the Corps, through recent legislation, has been authorized to maintain the Hatteras Inlet ocean bar. But it needs to do a feasibility study on modifying the Rollinson Channel project by adding the ocean bar, which remains unfunded.
Although the bar has never needed dredging before, the Waterway commissioners agreed that it is better to be prepared because the inlet is not as predictable as it used to be. Another concern is that the dredge material from the Connector Chanel is disposed near the bar.
“We want to be more proactive than we have been before,” said Coulter.
Member Danny Couch said it would make sense to seek a grant to fund the $135,000 cost for the feasibility study.
“Let’s just get it done,” he said. “When you have to go back, you run into exponential cost and grief.”
As for overall remaining funds, the Corps has $1 million left in the current fiscal year Rollinson Channel budget, and the county has about $9 million left for Oregon Inlet. Grover said up to $12 million was provided this year for Oregon Inlet — $3 million from the county, and 75% from the state.
The county has $800,000 — about $250,000 provided by the county, and the remaining provided by a 75% state match — available for the Miss Katie to work in Hatteras until the end of July, Grover said. Each dredge event there is estimated to cost about $200,000 to $300,000.
“So we have to ensure there are enough remaining funds for dredging,” he said.
But Grover said it’s a lot easier that the Miss Katie only has to make a 6- to 8-hour trip from Oregon Inlet to work in Hatteras Inlet, rather than waiting days or weeks for an overworked Corps dredge to arrive.
Still, fishers and charter captains in Hatteras are skeptical that day will ever come.
“For the most part, the guys on the dock don’t think we’re ever going to see it,” said member K.P. Scott.
Asked after the meeting if he agreed with Scott, Coulter said he’s heard the same sentiment, but he didn’t accept its conclusion.
He expressed no doubt that the Miss Katie will be coming to Hatteras.
“Oh, we’ll see it,” he declared.