Members of the Dare County Waterways Commission have reason to celebrate this holiday season, with reports from fishermen and charter boat captains that the recent dredging of the South Ferry Channel is holding up nicely.
“They say the flow going east-west through there — it’s a much better flow than what we had going across the shoal where we were, just southeast of there,” commission Chairman Steve “Creature” Coulter said during the panel’s virtual meeting on Monday. “And they say once it was opened up, it actually seemed to be flowing a little bit better through there in that direction.”
Shoaling in the channel had gotten so bad this year that the Army Corps of Engineers told commissioners in June that dredging South Ferry Channel had literally become impossible. After Coulter suggested that the channel could be extended at the western end to bypass the problem area, the commission agreed in September to request a new survey, and then discuss whether that was possible.
Still, the Corps was hesitant because it was concerned that the shallow depth could damage its dredge. Then a storm blew in about two weeks before Thanksgiving, and suddenly there was hope.
“Eventually, Mother Nature made the channel a little deeper,” Barton Grover, Dare County Grants & Waterways Administrator, said in an interview after the meeting.
When another survey taken after the storm showed promising change, he said, the Corps dredged the western route for a week.
“It’s wider, it’s deeper, and they should be able to dredge it for a significant period of time,” Grover said.
Not only is the improved South Ferry Channel no longer “a ditch,” as some commissioners had described it, he said, boats no longer have to take a hard left when coming in from the ocean.
“It’s more of a straight line,” he said.
With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planning to come back in January to dredge the channel for another 10 days, Coulter suggested that it probably could use some widening on the northwest end to allow access for water flow coming down from Sloop Channel.
“I don’t know if that would help keep it cleaner or not,” the chairman said. “It’s something to look at when we do the survey and see how it’s starting to build up, and if it’s just building up on that western edge.”
Responding, Joen Petersen, the Corps’ Chief of Floating Plant, said that tendency showed up pretty quickly even when it was being dredged.
“The good news, though, is they said it was kind of shoaled up then, and it still sounds like it’s a little shoaled up now,” he said. “So it doesn’t sound like it’s building too quickly there.”
Petersen said that what he is hearing supports Coulter’s information, and the good news is that, overall, the flow is running nicely within the channel. With regular maintenance, he said, he’s hopeful that the new channel will be easier to keep safe and navigable.
“That’d be a great New Year’s present,” Coulter said.
In other business, the commission was updated on the proposed realignment plan for the Rollinson Channel “horseshoe route.” Although the public comment on the final Environmental Assessment had closed in November, the resource agencies comment period has been extended until Jan. 18. That means, barring unexpected delays, the plan would likely be finalized in March.
According to the Corps, it has $30,000 budgeted for Rollinson for fiscal year 2022, but about $340,000 in residual funds may also be able to be tapped. In addition, some of the $2 billion allotted to the entire Corps in President Biden’s recently signed infrastructure bill may be available.
So far, the Corps has requested about $1.6 million to maintain the new alignment.
Of the three alternatives for the horseshoe route, the first one — no action — is not feasible, since it essentially would mean reverting back to the former “short route” that the Corps has deemed too heavily shoaled to maintain, especially considering the limits of funds and equipment.
According to Grover, the agencies are still considering issues involved with the other two alternatives — dredging within the current approved Oct. 1-March 31 window that addresses protection for turtles and submerged grasses; or the preferred alternative of conducting maintenance projects as needed year-round.
Minor permit modifications to allow dredging in months outside the window have been granted numerous times for the South Ferry Channel, he said, but the process requires extensive consultation between state and federal staff and is cumbersome and time-consuming.
Grover said that when exemptions for South Ferry Channel have been granted, he is not aware of any reports of turtles being injured or killed by dredge equipment, which has been modified over the years to keep the animals from being trapped in machinery. A buffer is also required to protect submerged aquatic grasses, he said.
With the preferred alternative, Grover said that as long as a machine is available, dredging could be done when it’s needed, instead of waiting for weeks or longer for approvals and permits, when the project could be more difficult and expensive.
The short route has not been used by the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries for about 10 years, leaving only the Hatteras end of Rollinson Channel authorized for federal maintenance.
The hope for commissioners is that once the Dare County dredge Miss Katie is completed, it would be able to supplement or replace Corps hopper or sidecaster dredges — which are in high demand on the East Coast — to work in inlet channels.
Grover said that the special purpose dredge is 68% complete, and is expected to be done by the end of April. After that, it would have to travel from Louisiana, and then undergo sea trials and Coast Guard inspections. So it likely wouldn’t be ready to start work in Dare County until June, he said.
Details on permit applications for potential projects for Miss Katie in the county are still being determined.
- Click here for the Army Corps of Engineers’ November 10 Survey of the South Ferry Channel
- Click here for the Army Corps of Engineers’ November 17 Survey of the South Ferry Channel
- Click here for the Army Corps of Engineers’ November 22 Survey of the South Ferry Channel