With waterways still clogged as a result of hurricanes Florence and Michael, and several projects on the horizon, the Dare County Waterways Commission on Tuesday had a full plate to discuss at its monthly meeting.
Mariners have been bumping on shoals in Oregon Inlet and Sloop Channel in Hatteras Inlet, but the South Ferry Channel in Hatteras Inlet – with its markers missing and as little as four feet of water in some sections – is essentially impassable.
An image of the Oct. 25 survey of the channel showed wide swaths of red, the designated color for shallow water.
While charter boats and commercial vessels wait for the long-awaited dredge project the county has planned, watermen are bypassing the South Ferry Channel by using the so-called “shortcut,” an unmarked channel around the shore-side.
But with turtle nesting season ending weeks ago, commission members are getting impatient.
“We’ve waited all summer for this environmental window to be lifted,” said commission Chairman Dave May.
Commissioners Ernie Foster, Natalie Kavanaugh, Danny Couch and Steve “Creature” Coulter were also in attendance. Fletcher Willey and Dan Oden were absent,
Under federal law, dredging is not allowed in the summer months when protected sea turtles are nesting.
“The dredge window has been open for two months now,” Coulter said, “and we still haven’t started any work.”
Even the Coast Guard can’t get use its 47-foot vessels in the channel, or get out to remove buoys that no longer mark best water.
In the post-Florence verification of the 599 markers in waters between the Virginia-North Carolina border to just south of Ocracoke Island, and west to Edenton along the western end of the Albemarle Sound, only about 20 markers had to be fixed, Ryan Agre, Officer in Charge at the Coast Guard Aide to Navigation office in Wanchese, said in a later interview. Those awry markers were located in Teach’s Hole in Ocracoke Inlet and in Barney Sloop Channel and South Ferry Channel in Hatteras Inlet. Of them, the five or six in South Ferry Channel are the only ones that have not been fixed because there’s no access, Agre said.
Ann Daisey, commission administrator, told members that the county has submitted its fund share to the state Division of Water Resources, which manages the state dredging fund.
Once the total project funds are transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps will be able to schedule the work, said Joen Petersen, Chief of Floating Plants for the Corps.
Meanwhile, Coulter and Kavanaugh took staff members from the office of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) out last Tuesday for “a boat ride” in Hatteras Inlet. With their guided tour, the hope is that it could help illustrate the complexity of navigating their vessels around shifting shoals, but also the mire of government jurisdictions, authorizations and bureaucratic requirements to maintain the waterway’s channels.
Coulter said he had done a similar tour with staff from the office of U.S. Sen Richard Burr (R-NC) earlier this year.
“Senators were made aware that the Coast Guard can’t get out of Hatteras Inlet,” he said. “I think everybody’s waiting to see who’s going to blink first. Well, I think we’ll be out of business if somebody doesn’t blink first.”
Dredge work in Rollinson Channel, however, is expected to resume this month, Roger Bullock, Corps Deputy Chief of Operations, confirmed. That work will include clearing shoals from the breakwater at the mouth of Hatteras Harbor, a concern for many months from commissioners.
Other waterway projects that are being planned include a stabilization project on the shoreline by the ferry dock on the north side of Ocracoke Island, and dredging of Avon Harbor.
Lance Winslow, with the state Ferry Division marine maintenance unit, told the panel that an engineer has been studying the eroded shoreline for the past six months, but there has been no definite decision on what will be built.
“I wouldn’t say a groin . . . but we’re going to come up with something,” Winslow said.
“I wish we could take our sand and pile it up on your shoreline,” Coulter said.
Responded Winslow: “I do, too.”
Progress on plans to dredge Avon Harbor has been delayed by storm damage from Hurricane Michael, said commissioner Danny Couch.
Couch said that storm surge on that part of the island was severe and left behind a lot of damage – including to the home of the proposed private dredge contractor.
But Agre, with the Coast Guard, said he was asked by someone in his district office not to remove the channel marker known as “Avon 8.”
“’There’s Congressional interest,’” he said,” Agre told commissioners, referring to the district official.
“You’re telling me the U.S. Congress is interested in Avon 8 ?,” Agre said, recounting the conversation. “He said, ‘Yeah – don’t discontinue it.’”
Agre explained later that he didn’t ask for any further details, and is unsure what the interest meant.
May also asked for updates on the dredging of Manteo Harbor, which would benefit the state-owned Elizabeth II, and reiterated concerns about the proposed state dredge project that will be administered by the Oregon Inlet Task Force.
Daisey said that despite the fact that the state has already appropriated the money, it is required that a grant application be made to secure the funds to dredge the Manteo Channel.
But Bullock said the biggest challenge for that work will be the disposal of the material because that area is lacking a suitable disposal site. Even if the material is found to be compatible to be used to widen the eroded shoreline on the north end of Roanoke Island, he said, it would be difficult and expensive for the material to be pumped miles away.
“Three miles is probably do-able,” Bullock said, adding that booster pumps would be needed. “You start losing production real fast.”
Commissioners know even less about the progress on plans for the state dredge, which have so far not been shared with the Waterways Commission.
An invitation had been extended to the Task Force to talk about the dredge, but the visit was postponed. Commissioners agreed to renew the invitation for next month’s meeting.
“I think we’re all scratching our heads about the state dredge,” May said. “The information we have is that the draft is going to be deep, and we’re not going to be able to do any dredging in Hatteras Inlet.”
Coulter said that it’s difficult to figure out what to believe, since so far the Waterways Commission has been left in the dark.
“Until we have somebody come here and explain it,” Coulter said, “it’s all speculation.”
Despite members’ frustration with slow progress on projects, and numerous concerns about ongoing issues, May made an effort to keep the tone more upbeat and productive than usual – and at least one person took note.
“The vigor and enthusiasm I’m seeing from all of you up there,” Petersen said at the close of the meeting, “has really grown exponentially.”