By JOY CRIST
The Dare County Waterways Commission met on February 13 at the Fessenden Center in Buxton to review updates on the steps required for the upcoming dredging project for Hatteras Inlet.
The Waterways Commission’s immediate goal is to keep the Connecting Channel west of the Inlet Gorge – or the long route – that maritime traffic has been using open, and the long-term goal is to reopen the shorter route east of the gorge, which is a much more complicated project, logistically.
All six members of the current commission were present, (one seat remains at large), and representatives from the US Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the NCDOT Ferry Division, and members of the Hatteras fishing community were at the meeting as well.
The inlet has been especially shallow in recent weeks, and several fishermen at the meeting noted that going through the inlet during low tide is a nearly impossible task.
“The tide is extremely low this time of year,” said commission member Steve “Creature” Coulter in a phone interview after the meeting. “There have been some people who have bumped bottom, and as we’re heading into the season where we’re all going to be fishing a lot more, everyone wants it taken care of as soon as possible.”
To provide relief, Dare County hired a consultant to help secure permits for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the area around the Connecting Channel and the ocean bar, and the process is on schedule to have permits by spring. The project will be done under a one-year renewable agreement with the state and the Corps, which will allow multiple opportunities to dredge in the same year as needed.
“My understanding is that once we get the permits and MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] in place, it’s a matter of signing paperwork again to renew the permits,” said Coulter. “In other words, once you get it, you can renew it as needed like a driver’s license – without the work required to [acquire the permits in the first place.]”
The state permits are in place and the CAMA permit was issued on December 22, 2016. The water quality permit has also been issued, and a letter has been submitted by the state Office of Historic Preservation that says that as long as the dredging follows the same area that’s been dredged before, there were no objections from the office on the project. “At one point, the [Office of Historic Preservation] had raised concerns there may be artifacts, and that a survey may be required – but we don’t have to do that now,” said Coulter.
The MOA is currently under review at the council office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) in Atlanta. According to COE Project Manager Robert Medlock at the meeting, all permits and paperwork required to start dredging should be in place within 30 days.
Once the dredging can begin, the dredge vessel Merritt will arrive first to clear the way for up to two hopper dredge(s). “We need the Merritt to start with, so we can get enough water to get the other dredge out here,” said Coulter. “One of the potential problems is that the Corps has actually gotten all of their dredge work planned out for the rest of the year, and we’re going to have to get [the dredges] when we can. But we think we’ll be able to get the dredge Merritt down here pretty quickly.”
“As far as scheduling the hopper dredge to come in, that’s when a scheduling conflict may occur,” added Coulter. “But the Corps has said at the meetings that it didn’t seem like it would be a problem once we got the permit.”
It was also reported at the meeting that the recent adjustments to the ferry channel – which was dredged last month – has provided some relief to the formerly tight crossing. The former “S-Curves,” which made it difficult for ferries to pass each other in between the Federal Channel and Barney’s Slough, has been somewhat straightened, which has made it easier for the large ferries to navigate and maneuver through the water. “We are real pleased with it,” said Coulter. “It’s a safer route for passing and meeting other vessels.”
The US Coast Guard also noted at the meeting that as the channel gets low / shallow, they may use the Ocracoke facilities in order to ensure continual access when needed.
There were also several proposals at the meeting regarding the long-term dredging plan, as well as the empty board seat.
Waterways Commission member and Dare County Board of Commissioners (BOC) member Danny Couch recommended that a promotional video be created – like the one produced for Oregon Inlet – and an economic assessment of the contribution of Hatteras Inlet be conducted in order to promote the long term dredging project.
Couch also recommended that Natalie Perry Kavanagh be recommended to the BOC, (which appoints Waterways Commission members), to fill the empty seventh seat of the commission. The recommendation was approved by the commission members.
The next meeting for the Dare County Waterways Commission will be on Monday, March 13 at 7 p.m. in Manteo.