Hatteras Inlet is faring nearly as poorly as its counterpart to the north, with similarly difficult-to-resolve shoaling issues. But it is not yet viewed as an equally dire situation.
“Hatteras Inlet has a problem,” said Hatteras charter boat captain Ernie Foster. “Oregon Inlet has a disaster.”
While the Dare County Tourism Board agreed last month to provide $300,000 in matching funds for dredging Oregon Inlet, it would likely take an act of Congress to authorize the work necessary to widen the federal channel in Hatteras Inlet.
Foster, a tourism board member, said that the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is so clogged with sand it is difficult to navigate, especially for mariners who are unfamiliar with the waterway. Ferry traffic has had to use an alternate, and longer, channel for the last two years.
“The inlet has never been like it is now,” Foster, a native waterman, said. “The slightest miscalculation , or the slightest change in conditions” creates navigation challenges.
Foster said the conditions are worrying recreational and commercial fishermen and the business communities in Hatteras and Ocracoke villages. He added that the Tourism Board has not yet been asked to contribute funds to dredge Hatteras Inlet, which has an economic impact estimated at $150 million to $168 million.
With its much larger economic impact, Oregon Inlet, by comparison, is currently impassable most days for all but the smallest vessels. Concerns about the severe impact on commerce — fishing, boating and tourism — has county and state officials focused on finding an immediate remedy, as well as a long-term solution.
Although Hatteras Inlet is also a critical passage, for the most part local watermen like Foster are still able to get out to the ocean, and ferry traffic can still transit safely.
“We’re having no problems with the long route,” said Ferry Division Deputy Director Jed Dixon, referring to the new channel.
Dixon said he has heard that some other vessels may sometimes bump bottom, but he is not aware of any groundings in the new route, a natural deep-water channel known as Barney Slough.
The former ferry route through Rollinson Channel, meanwhile, will remain too treacherous until it is dredged properly, he said.
“It’s not a safe option right now,” Dixon said. “The short route we historically had run is basically non-existent.”
As the designated federally-maintained route, Rollinson Channel provided passage for boats from Hatteras village to the end of the Hatteras spit. Then boats would turn into the inlet toward the ocean or north to the Ocracoke ferry docks in a state-maintained channel.
But much of the old channel, especially at the turn, has narrowed and been increasingly difficult to keep clear. Shoaling only got worse after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Barney Slough, which is not dredged, was designated by the Coast Guard as the alternate navigation channel in February 2013, and it was officially made permanent in August 2014.
Until last December, the ferries had alternated between the channels, using the shorter route whenever possible.
In a presentation at the North Carolina Board of Transportation meeting last month, the ferry division provided details about the impact the longer route has had on service and costs. The 9.5-mile channel takes about an hour to transit, versus about 40 minutes for the former 4.3-mile route.
That translates to more fuel and fewer passengers. For instance, in August 2013, 134,291 passengers were transported on the short route, which had up to 52 departures a day. In August 2014, there were 119,260 transported on the long route, which had up to 42 departures a day.
It costs NCDOT as much as $250,000 more per month in labor and fuel to run the long route.
Although there have been longer backups at the ferry stacking lanes in the summer, Dixon said, the ferries have mostly managed to keep up with demand.
“Our wintertime schedule for probably eight months out of the year,” he said, “is the same as it’s ever been.”
An aerial map of Hatteras inlet displayed at the DOT board meeting, with dotted lines showing shoreline changes, illustrated an explanation for much of the shoaling — the tip of Hatteras Island, or the spit, has been eroding at a rapid rate.
Consequently, Dixon said, the inlet is much wider and there is nothing to stop the sand from coming in from the ocean.
“I think a jetty would help stabilize the situation some,” he said “But that would be a very hard uphill push.”
After 30 years of effort, a proposed twin-jetty project in Oregon Inlet was rejected in 2003 by a White House panel that ruled the barriers would have negative effects on fish populations and insignificant benefit to the economy.
Maintenance of Rollinson Channel is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, but the agency is limited by fund shortages and its regulatory authority, said Bob Sattin, chief of operations at the Corps’ Wilmington district.
The Corps is authorized to maintain the federal part of the Rollinson Channel at a depth of 10 feet and width of 100 feet. But proposals to widen the channel to as much as 200 feet would necessitate a new study. That would be a time-consuming process that requires Congressional approval, Sattin said.
“It’s like requesting a new project,” he said.
The Corps has $200,000 remaining in the fiscal year 2015 budget for maintenance of Rollinson Channel. The money, he said, will be used to dredge the parts of the channel still used by boaters. But that leaves the severely shoaled areas unaddressed.
“Even if we were able to go in and dredge the channel,” Sattin said, “it wouldn’t stay that way.”
Despite emergency dredging, the Corps has not been able to keep up with shoaling in the channel, which DOT noted needs “constant dredging.”
Sattin said that Congress has cut way back in the Corps budget, which is based on projects, not general funds. For instance, Oregon Inlet would typically receive $8 million. This year it was allocated only $800,000.
If the state and the county can come up with the funds to dredge Hatteras Inlet, Sattin said, they could apply for a permit from the Corps to do the necessary work. Or they could provide the money to the Corps to do the work. But unless Congress acted, he said, the authorized width of the channel would remain at 100 feet.
To Foster, the charter boat captain, it seems obvious that the additional expense to the ferry system to use the long route would make dredging the short channel worth it to the state. Not only that, the conditions are more challenging for the Coast Guard. And Dare and Hyde counties stand to lose tourist and fishing revenue.
“There’s finite funds,” Foster said. ” It seems to me we all have common cause in looking at a solution. That means looking at all available sources and working cooperatively.”
For more information on the Ferry Division’s presentation to the N.C. Board of Transportation at its December meeting, go to http://www.ncdot.gov/download/about/board/bot/archivemeeting/2014/201412_meetingarchive.pdf.