Dredging in the now-impassable South Ferry Channel in Hatteras Inlet has been making far less progress than expected, leaving members of the Dare County Waterways Commission at Monday’s virtual meeting reacting in stunned silence after a project update.
“I wish I had good news to tell you that we busted through the shoal,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Floating Plant Joen Petersen told commissioners. “But it’s been a very tough go up to this point.”
Next week might offer some hope, he added, with about eight or nine inches of tide expected to come in.
“That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s a whole bunch,” Petersen said. “That is a bright spot. But as of right now, I don’t know if it’s going to work or not.”
Petersen said that the sidecaster dredge Merritt started work at the problem spot on the west end of the channel on March 4, but the weather and the low water have made it nearly impossible to get close enough to start biting into the sand.
“Just to remind everybody, the boat draws five feet, and as you know, we’re having 2- or 3-foot shoals,” he said. “So the only way we can dredge is we essentially run the boat up until it runs aground. We back up, we keep running it until it runs aground. The theory is, every time you do that, you hopefully gain an inch of forward progress.”
Brennan Dooley, shallow draft inlet manager for the Corps, said that the team is doing all it can, considering the conditions, but he is aware that more time to get the work done will cost more for the county, which is paying for the project.
“So we will look to y’all on the decision whether we should keep going right now, or try to do an exploratory survey to see if anything else has opened up,” he said. “Or wait a little bit and… I don’t know, we don’t have many options.”
Commissioner Ernie Foster asked, hopefully: “Did you make any progress at all? Fifty feet? A hundred feet?”
Responding, Petersen said that that the dredge has made some progress, but it hasn’t reached the hardest section of the shoal. He suggested that work continue until it has reached the original project timeline of seven to 10 days.
“If by 10 days we haven’t got on that shoal by then,” he said, “I think we’d just be wasting our time at that point forward.”
But since there are 28 days of dredging available in terms of available funds, commissioners were not ready to throw in the towel.
“We don’t have any other options,” said Commission Chair Steve “Creature” Coulter, a Hatteras charter boat captain. “We’re getting ready to start trying to go fishing. The Coast Guard needs to respond. We need to get something done.”
In a later interview, Coulter said that the U.S. Coast Guard can use Ocracoke Inlet to get its work done, but its 47-foot boats can’t transit through Hatteras Inlet. The shoaling is so bad this time, even the local charter captains can’t detour around it like they’ve done in the past.
“I would say that 90 percent of the boats cannot get in and out,” Coulter said.
But no one realized until Monday, he said, how much trouble the Corps was having with clearing out the shoal.
Petersen told commissioners that the dredge will keep at it as long as they want it to work there. If the Merritt is able to break through, he said, the hopper dredge Murden is on standby ready to come in and remove the material to a disposal area.
After further back-and-forth, Petersen said he would continue work until Monday, and then the parties can re-assess and make a decision about going forward — or not.
That was followed by a prolonged pause. No one spoke.
“Okay,” Coulter said, breaking the silence. “Take a deep breath on that.”
A few minutes later, Foster weighed in, telling Coulter, “I’m like you — I’m stunned.”
Commissioner Dan Oden rallied the troops: “I struggle to find anything to say, but I just pray that we can keep pressing on, [and] find a way through there.
“If it takes longer, and we’ve got to come up with some money somewhere, we have to do something,” Oden said. “We have no choice. We have to find a way to push through there and get that cleaned out so we can use it.”
Earlier in the meeting, Dare County consultant Ken Willson with Coastal Protection and Engineering of North Carolina spent about an hour reviewing recommendations from the 103-page Dare County Dredge Material Permit Project.
The plan will be presented to the Dare County Board of Commissioners at their upcoming meeting on March 15.