After being diverted for emergency dredging in the Hatteras ferry channel, the dredge Merritt was finally back at work Thursday morning at the Connecting Channel in Hatteras Inlet.
To the dismay of charter boat captains and village business owners who had been waiting many anxious months for dredging to begin, the sidecaster dredge had been pulled away just two days after it had started dredging on April 22. The vessel had been sent to clear shoaling at Bigfoot Slough so ferries could get through safely.
As long as the ferry channel remains passable, the work at the Connecting Channel should be able to continue for the next three weeks or so.
“It’s great we’re talking about dredging,” Jim Medlock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works project manager, said at Monday’s May 8 meeting of the Dare County Waterways Commission. “We really have come a long way in a month.”
The Connecting Channel has been difficult to near impossible to navigate since last year, scaring away recreational boaters and fishing tournament participants, and resulting in losses of charter fishing business in the village.
Medlock had helped secure an agreement with Dare County and the state for the Corps to dredge the Connecting Channel, a non-federal channel, which was finally signed last month after a slow crawl between federal, state and county offices that began last August.
A state permit for the 21-day project was extended until June 15, Medlock said, and the signed Corps permit extension is expected any day. The agreement provides up to $2 million from the state through April 2018. So far, he said, the Corps has been paid $500,000, but that amount includes a cushion beyond the anticipated cost of the current project.
Joen Petersen, Corps chief of floating plants, said there is only about 2- to 3-feet of water in sections of the channel. The Merritt, with a 5-foot draft, has to essentially dredge a path into the shoal before it can do the actual channel dredging, which will start on the west end.
Peterson said the channel would be dredged to the controlling depth of 8 feet and a width of about 100 feet, although the permit would allow as much as 12 feet and 150 feet, respectively.
“I don’t think that’s a realistic thing at this point,” he said.
But members of the commission were just happy that work is – at last – underway, and hopes are high that the channel will be clear in time for fishing tournament season.
“We’re not running there right now,” Steve “Creature” Coulter, a Hatteras charter boat captain and commission member, told Peterson. “We’re going to leave you alone and let you have your way.”
Another persistent shoaling problem – by the breakwater at the mouth of Hatteras Harbor – also may be able to be addressed in the near future. Over the last few months, increasing alarm about the situation has been expressed by several commission members.
“It is getting worse,” commissioner Ernie Foster, a Hatteras charter captain said on Monday. “We can sit here and say we need to do something, but unless we actually do something, that harbor will be closed in two years.”
After some back and forth discussion, it appeared that the solution could be found in another Corps project planned in Hatteras Inlet.
As Medlock reviewed details of four interior channel dredge projects that Corps is planning to do this winter at Shallowbag Bay (Oregon Inlet), Silver Lake Harbor in Ocracoke, Atlantic Harbor (Carteret County); and Rollinson Channel, the question was raised whether the breakwater at Hatteras Harbor could be included in the Rollinson Channel project.
“That’s where our 1,500-foot channel would begin,” Medlock responded. .
In a later telephone interview, Medlock said “that’s something we’re going to be looking at as part of the Rollinson project.”
The projects, or at least portions of them, will be grouped under one contract, Medlock told commissioners, which would be offered for bid from small business contractors in August. Funds would be secured from the federal budget that was recently passed, he said, with costs estimated at $5 million to $10 million.
Medlock said that potentially there could be additional funds that become available from the shallow draft navigation program.
But for the time being, most of the focus will remain on getting the Connecting Channel dredged before summer.
Danny Couch, a Waterways Commission member who also represents Hatteras Island on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said everyone will breathe easier once the Merritt finishes the job next month.
“Hopefully,” he said, “the moon and stars will line up and this will be a happy day in June.”
The next meeting of the Dare County Waterways Commission is scheduled to be held at 7 p.m on June 12 at the Fessenden Center in Buxton.