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By Connie Leinbach
If the short ferry route between Ocracoke and Hatteras can ever come back, it will take a dedicated task force and probably many years.
That was the assessment Tuesday during a meeting with N.C. Ferry Division officials in the Ocracoke Community Center.
Usually held the second Monday of every month, the meeting was held Tuesday so that Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the Army Corps of Engineers, could attend to explain the challenging conditions in Hatteras Inlet.
Those conditions have only gotten worse in the last three years, said Jed Dixon, interim director of the Ferry Division.
“All the problems are in the inlet,” Dixon said. “Dredging the inlet is not going to stay.”
Because the historical short route runs perpendicular to the inlet, that is the problem, and not just to ferries but to the Hatteras commercial fishing fleet and the Coast Guard who want to get out to the ocean.
The loss of land mass—on the north end of Ocracoke as well–has added to the shoaling in the area of the ferry route that the Army Corps has jurisdiction over.
“The disappearance of the islands has affected the channel,” Bullock said. “Some of these events (storms) over the last 10 years have changed the dynamics of the waterway.”
Prior to the loss of island mass, dredging was not as big of a deal, only needing $70,000 to $300,000 in federal funds each year, Bullock said.
The Corps’ jurisdiction, so mandated by Congress in the early part of the 20th century, runs from the Hatteras dock, along the end of Hatteras Island and out to the deepest part of the inlet, called “the gorge.” The state has jurisdiction on the other side of the gorge to the Ocracoke dock at the north end (called South Dock).
The areas on either side of the gorge are where the heaviest shoaling has occurred and which also happens to be where the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry has historically traveled until 2013 when Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) added significantly more shoaling.
“There are no cross-channels anymore,” Bullock said. “We’ve been waiting for Mother Nature to change it.”
Bullock said the Corps surveys the inlet water frequently.
An area near the gorge where he has used an “advance maintenance” to try to make the channel wider on either side with the side caster dredge continues to fill in with sand and that he has shelved that effort for now.
After continued ferry groundings in 2013 in the short route, a natural channel farther west in the Pamlico Sound was discovered and then sanctioned by the Coast Guard. This newer horse-shoe-shaped route takes an hour to traverse vs. the 30 to 40-minute ride that was the short route.
Because of the longer route and Coast Guard regulations, the Ferry Division has not been able to run as many ferries between the islands, reducing the total number of vehicles to Ocracoke and, subsequently, day visitors.
Contributing to the increased shoaling has been the steady erosion of land mass at the tip of Hatteras Island, which historically protected the inlet, preventing sand from rushing into the inlet.
Could a new path be dredged through the middle of the horseshoe, some of dozen islanders attending wanted to know?
Possibly, but Dixon said that would cost multi millions of dollars, involve the relocation of 1 million cubic yards of sand, and require numerous approvals and environmental impact studies of the sub-aquatic vegetation, all of which would take a long time.
“Ninety percent of federal funding goes to the deep ports,” Bullock said. “That’s a huge economic federal interest. Ocracoke and Hatteras are considered ‘subsistence harbors.’”
And time keeps getting compressed.
“You look at the Outer Banks now and you can’t say ‘long-term’” noted Scotty Robinson about the changes to the fragile strip of barrier islands in recent years. “The time it takes someone to make a decision, that’s three steps ago.”
Dixon explained how a task force in Dare County, along with the Corps and the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, is working on getting a piece of the channel dredged that’s outside the Corps’ jurisdiction so that the fishing fleet in Hatteras can access the ocean.
Since the Dare and Hyde County border is between the islands, he suggested Ocracoke also create a task force for a long-term solution.
“I think we should go forward with (a task force),” said Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner. “The passenger ferry is a way to circumvent the problem but not to solve the problem.”
Pahl said later he would begin work on this after Easter.
The Ferry Division has launched the building of a passenger ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke’s Silver Lake to help relieve some of the traffic lines at Hatteras. Following the addition of infrastructure at both terminals, passenger ferry service is hoped to begin in 2018.
And Dixon stressed that the addition of this options will not exclude work on improving vehicle car ferry service.
“If there’s anywhere you could cut out 15 minutes on the long route, we could get back to (the service) we had three years ago,” Dixon said. “I’ll help however I can. This needs to be a committee long-term project.”