BY CATHERINE KOZAK
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
Dredging is set to begin next month in Hatteras Inlet at a stubbornly clogged channel that has been impassable on its west end for months.
At Monday’s meeting of the Dare County Waterways Commission in Manteo, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said that there would be a 10-day window for the sidecaster dredge Merritt to clear sand from the Connecting Channel west of the Inlet Gorge.
Outten said that the permit from the Corps of Engineers is expected to be in hand in time to start dredging on Sept. 7th, weather permitting.
The county has been granted multiple extensions by state and federal agencies to dredge outside of the permitted timeframe from October 1 through March 31, Outten said. But he warned that the commission shouldn’t count on continued future extensions of the dredge window.
“They’re going to be more difficult going forward,” he said. “How many times can we go to that well? I don’t know.”
At the advice of the Corps, the commission had agreed in June to ask for another extension to do late-summer dredging to maintain at least the minimal depth in the channel required for the hopper dredge to work safely in the fall. There was also urgency to complete the project before the Merritt is sent to the shipyard in October for repairs.
Hopper dredges can do more intensive dredging, but the larger and less agile machines cannot access very shallow water.
The county has $250,000 in its budget available to dredge in Hatteras Inlet this fiscal year, and with a four to one match in funds from the state, Outten said, it translates to $1 million in total funds available in fiscal year 2017-2018. About $60,000 in the account is leftover from last year, he added.
The hopper dredge project in the Connecting Channel is expected to start in the fall.
“From our perspective, the money is available, and we need the experts to tell us how to spend it,” Outten said.
Matching state and local funds are also available to have a survey done prior to the project, he told the commission. For a $4,000 survey, the county would provide $1,000.
But doing an economic study of the inlet would be far more expensive, the county manager said. According to estimates provided by engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol, he said, it would cost $90,000 to $125,000.
“My question is: What’s it going to do for you going forward?” he asked commissioners. “Before we go forward, that’s something you’ll have to think about – the scope of both projects. We’re going to have to make some choices. How do we get the best bang for our buck with our dollars?”
After some discussion, members agreed that the money was better put toward dredging.
“Nobody doubts the value of an economic study,” said Danny Couch, a Waterways Commission member who also represents Hatteras Island on the Dare County Board of Commissioners. “I think it’s good to have it in our back pocket when the time is right. “
In addition to Couch, commission members in attendance were Steve “Creature” Coulter, Fletcher Willey, Ronald Lowe, Chuck Earley and Chairman Dave May. Members Dan Oden and Ernie Foster were absent.
Once an archaeological survey is completed of the Connecting Channel, Outten said that the hope is that an enlarged “dredge box” can be authorized so that “good water” can be followed rather than fighting constant shoaling in a smaller limited area.
“We don’t have that flexibility now,” he said.
In other business Monday, Sara Schweitzer, wildlife diversity biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, gave a presentation about the dredge material islands that migratory seabirds and waterbirds use for nesting and habitat.
Schweitzer said that Wildlife Resources manages more than 20 spoil islands where about 20 migratory seabird species nest. There are also natural marsh islands that birds populate. Many birds not only use the islands for nesting, they also use them for winter habitat or refueling stopovers where they rest and eat before flying on to their destinations – which could be thousands of miles away. One radio-tagged Great Egret, for example, was tracked from Monkey Island in Currituck County to Columbia, South America.
More than 65 percent of nesting white ibis in North Carolina and 83 percent of nesting brown pelicans use spoil islands, she said, as well as many terns.
Bird wildlife managers are concerned with maintaining conditions on the dredge islands that provide undisturbed environments for nesting and foraging, Schweitzer said. The agency is charged with monitoring the birds and conducting research, banding and health assessments.
But bird conservation can conflict with the maintenance of the inlets, where places are needed to dispose of sand removed from shoaled channels. When enough material is piled up to create an island, it becomes state land – and birds can quickly move in. The Corps has an agreement with the state to help maintain the islands.
“It is a real collaborative effort,” she said.
Schweitzer said that an effort is underway to try to restore what is known as DOT Island, an area in Hatteras Inlet that has eroded since it was created in the late 1960s from about 20 acres to about five acres. In general, she said, it is challenging to re-build such islands.
In response to questions about using dredge material to make more islands, she said that also is not easily done.
“Creating new islands is possible,” Schweitzer said, “but it’s a really long process.”
The next meeting of the Waterways Commission is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Fessenden Center.