The Dare County Waterways Commission focused on both the short-term and long-term future of dredging Hatteras Inlet at their virtual meeting on Monday evening, July 12.
In the short term, a request has been submitted to do another round of dredging in the South Ferry Channel in late July, as the channel has been causing headaches for mariners for most of the summer season.
“The channel is not in good shape,” said commission chairman Steve “Creature” Coulter after the meeting. “A boat ran aground yesterday, and a boat ran aground today… We really need to get [the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] back in again as soon as possible, so the Coast Guard can do their search and rescue missions, charter boats can continue working, and commercial fisherman can continue working.”
Special permission is needed for every dredging event outside of the permitted dredging window of October 1 through March 31, and a request is also being made in advance to do a late August dredging of the channel as well.
“We submitted all of the info to the agencies on Friday, and we will check back this week,” said Todd Horton with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Hopefully, that will get us through [the summer] until the window opens up.”
As a long-term plan to keep the inlet open and navigable, the Waterways Commission has been working for more than a year to enact changes that would allow the Corps to dredge the channel whenever it was required, all year long, and without obtaining permission first.
Maintenance of Hatteras Inlet’s navigation channels has been a constant goal of the commission, for both economic and safety reasons. Much of the members’ frustration in recent years has been directed at the fragmented regulatory status of the inlet’s passages – some federal, some state, some neither, some both. Realignment of the federal channel would help address these gaps.
The Corps of Engineers is proposing to add language that will expand the area included in the existing federal authorization for Rollinson Channel, a long-sought revision that, until recently, was believed to be possible only through an act of Congress. The process involves changing the authorization language that restricts how “best water” or “best route” are defined in the federal channels, and the end result would sidestep the cumbersome and lengthy process of securing Congressional legislation that is required to change authorization.
“What we want is for the long route to be made federal, and the ability to dredge it whenever we need to, and that’s what the Corps is working towards,” said Coulter.
A bulk of paperwork, including environmental reviews and assessments, has to be completed and submitted to the respective decision-making agencies to approve the federal realignment of the channel, and Corps representatives at Monday’s meeting said everything should be set to submit by October. The Corps has also been communicating with representatives from these agencies to keep them in the loop of the upcoming realignment request.
“U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, DEQ, Division of Marine Fisheries, Coastal Management – Those are all the agencies we briefed last week on [the dredging] operations we would like to perform any time of the year,” said Horton.
When asked by Chairman Coulter if approval looked promising, Horton responded “We’ll see.”
While the documentation and official request will likely be submitted in October, it is no clear exactly how long the subsequent approval process will take, and / or when permission to realign the channel will be granted.
“From the time that anything is submitted, they have 120 days to complete [the process],” said Horton. “Hopefully it won’t take that long, but they reminded us of that timeframe.”
Coulter also noted that when it comes to obtaining this permission, the Waterways Commission had a lot of support outside of local circles. “We have a lot of people trying to help us,” he said. “I’ve received emails from Senator Tillis’ office, Dr. Murphy’s office, and Senator Burr’s office supporting what we are trying to do.”
In other commission news, a recent test run by the N.C. Ferry Division of the emergency ferry route between Rodanthe and Stumpy Point was successful, which means that the emergency ferry can operate in the event of a hurricane. “They ran it on high water and were able to make it OK,” said Coulter after the meeting. “They would like more water, and are looking at options if dredging is needed for low water situations.”
In addition, the Waterways Commission said goodbye to member Dan Oden and noted their intention to fill his spot with Miss Hatteras headboat captain, KP Scott. “I fully support KP… I think he will do a great job for us,” said Commissioner Natalie Kavanagh.
The Dare County Waterways Commission is a seven-member board whose mission is to serve as a liaison between Dare County and the various federal agencies that are involved in the continual maintenance of waterways throughout Dare County.
The next meeting of the commission will be held in person on August 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the Fessenden Center Annex in Buxton.