The federal dredge Merritt is scheduled to arrive at sand-clogged Hatteras Inlet on Saturday, although there’s a good chance that the project may be delayed by a strong, fast-moving coastal low.
“If there is a significant weather event, the Merritt will probably not work,” said Daniel Sinclair, deputy chief of the plant section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District.
Forecasters anticipate that the storm, which is expected to bring heavy seas and high wind, will move away from the Outer Banks by Saturday afternoon.
Sinclair said that the Merritt has been scheduled to work a half-day on Saturday and all of Sunday, followed by a layover of three days. Work would then resume on Jan. 29 and continue through Feb. 4.
The dredge, he said, will be primarily focused on clearing sand between buoys 14 and 15 in the Rollinson Channel, the portion of the former “short channel” still used on ferry runs between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
“That’s a critical area for them,” Sinclair said. “That is right where they make the 90-degree turn to the slough.”
Until about two years ago, Rollinson Channel was the marked channel used by the ferries for the 40-minute trip between the islands. But severe shoaling made the channel impassable, forcing vessel traffic to better water in the Barney Slough, about an hour ferry trip. In August, the longer route was designated the permanent navigational channel by the Coast Guard, which is responsible for marking it.
Travel has been hazardous at the turn in Rollinson Channel at the end of the Hatteras spit, where boats turn into the inlet toward the ocean or north to the Ocracoke ferry docks in the state-maintained channel.
Sinclair said that the Corps is authorized to dredge to a depth of 10 feet and a width of 100 feet. The project will exhaust the remainder of the current 2015 federal appropriation for Rollinson Channel. Additional funding could potentially be made available, he said, through the memorandum of agreement that the state has with the Corps.
Allen Burrus, Dare County Commissioner from Hatteras, said that a Hatteras Inlet Users Association is in the process of getting organized, with members representing, among others, the charter and commercial fishing industries, local businesses, the civic association and marinas.
Burrus said that in the short term, the goal is “to get it open,” although local boaters have still been able to manage to get through the inlet. He added that Merritt’s work would result in two good routes to transit the waterway. The Coast Guard is expected to re-mark the channel, he said, after the dredging is completed.
“We’re itching to . . . advertise that we have a safe harbor here for all the tournaments in the summer,” Burrus said.
The current shoaling situation, he added, led to Hatteras being bypassed by the National Geographic Channel’s “Wicked Tuna” production. Instead, they went to Morehead City, where filming was reportedly being done this week.
After the recent arrest of one of the captains appearing in the series – he was accused of pulling the ponytail of a hotel desk clerk – the producers, Pilgrim Studios, and the Channel issued a joint statement confirming the incident. But it was unclear from the statement whether filming would continue in Morehead, where some large bluefin tuna have been hooked.
“We are cooperating fully with local authorities,” the statement said. “In the meantime, we will continue production of “Wicked Tuna,” which showcases the best of the New England and East Coast fishing communities.”
A spokesman for the show could not be reached for further details.
Burrus said that ultimately, the association wants to find a long-term solution to maintenance of the inlet, which will necessitate the county and the state finding the funds to dredge regularly.
But he said that it is encouraging that lawmakers in Washington seem to be recognizing the economic importance of waterway maintenance to the nation, especially on the coasts.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC, recently asked the Corps to fund additional dredging in Oregon Inlet, which is so badly shoaled it is impassable to all but the smallest vessels.
The statement said that Congress has added several unallocated sources of money to the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill for different project categories, including navigation maintenance projects and small, remote harbors.
Josh Bowlen, Jones’ legislative director, said that Jones is also working on a similar request for Hatteras Inlet, which fits similar criteria as Oregon Inlet.
“Congressman Jones is actually gathering the information to make the best possible case to Congress to allocate funds from those additional pots for Hatteras Inlet,” Bowlen said.