By Joy Crist of the Island Free Press. Reprinted by permission
There was little good news at the Dare County Waterways Commission meeting on Monday (March 14) as frustrations continued to simmer about the lack of immediate dredging and imminent solutions for the Hatteras Inlet.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted a round of dredging in February, but was unsuccessful due to the shallow waters. “When the Merritt came in February, we originally tried going in there [to dredge], and we made a couple passes in the South Ferry Channel,” said Joen Petersen, the corps’ Chief of Floating Plan. “This tore up the rudder on the Merritt, so it had to go to the emergency shipyard.”
While a new survey of the South Ferry Channel will be ordered this week, at the moment, it is unlikely that there is enough water for the Merritt, the Corps’ sidecaster dredge, to be able to conduct dredging operations anytime soon.
“We can’t even get [on the hump] with the Merritt right now,” said Petersen. “We’ll, hopefully, get a new survey by Thursday, and, hopefully, get a new approach… [But] right now the water is not favorable to get in there and dredge, and conditions aren’t looking good to get in there and dredge this week.”
“People really need to be aware of the gravity of the situation, and how time-sensitive this opportunity for dredging is,” said Hatteras charter boat captain Brian Patteson at the meeting. “We’re where we were a year ago, and it’s a bad place to be. If we can’t get a channel in the next few weeks, it will be a serious financial hardship for [a lot of] people, on top of what they’ve already been through. We’ve been shut out down here for about two months, and it’s very disconcerting… Failure is not an option.”
Representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Ferry Division also said they were having issues getting through the inlet, and that it was causing interruptions or hardships to their operations.
“We are having trouble just like everyone else. We are not using the Hatteras Class ferries because of these issues,” said Catherine Peele, Planning and Development Manager for the NCDOT Ferry Division. “The point is that we need more dredging, and more room and better conditions.”
Essentially, dredging is needed to make the channel deeper, but there is currently not enough depth to dredge, creating a seemingly insurmountable problem. However, the Waterways Commission brainstormed a potential short-term solution, and there are several long-term solutions in the works that will hopefully ease conditions by the summer.
For the short-term, commission members turned their attention to the ongoing bucket and barge dredging operation that is underway in the Sloop Channel north of Ocracoke Island. This is an emergency dredging project commissioned by the NCDOT to obtain more sand and rebuild the dunes on northern Ocracoke Island, while making this corner of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel a little deeper.
Commission members hypothesized that if they could enlist the assistance of the bucket-and-barge dredge currently in Hatteras Inlet to “punch a hole” and open up a 50’ ft. wide and 300-400’ ft. long area, it could build a deep path that the Merritt could get through in order to dredge the South Ferry Channel.
Because this would require the contractor for the emergency dredging project to effectively take on a new project, even if it’s just for a short time, a permit modification would be required, and the NCDOT would need to give their permission, in addition to other factors that would make this temporary solution come to fruition.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” said Ken Willson, the county’s consultant with Wilmington-based Coastal Protection Engineering. “The timing has to be right with the Merritt, the DOT has to be on board, and the contractor has to be able to get there, too, but it sure would be nice to be able to work this out to benefit the South Ferry Channel as well.”
Commission members are working with the contractor to see if the bucket-and-barge dredge will be able to work in the South Ferry Channel area, and are also discussing permitting and permissions with the associated agencies, including the NCDOT and Dare County.
“The fact of the matter is the [NCDOT] will get more sand cheaper if we can get that permit modification to allow them to work in the South Ferry Channel,” said Willson, referring to the sand needed to build the dunes along N.C. Highway 12 on northern Ocracoke Island.
For the long haul, the expected late June arrival of Dare County’s own dredge, Miss Katie, as well as the approval of the realignment of the Hatteras Ferry Channel, will likely make dredging easier in the future, assuming both projects are completed soon.
Much of mariners’ 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 is in the process of adding language that will expand the areas included in the existing federal authorization, a long-sought revision that, until recently, was believed to be possible only through an act of Congress.
The approval of the realignment will also potentially allow dredging year-round, (unless revisions are made during the review process.) Locally, year-round dredging is a much-needed addition, as special permission is currently required to dredge outside of the approved window, which ends on March 31.
This realignment of Rollinson Channel that would include the South Ferry Channel and Sloop Channel in the federal authorization is still being reviewed by various agencies, and is currently being delayed by National Marine Fisheries Services, which told the Army Corps that they have concerns about how subaquatic vegetation is being addressed in the Environmental Assessment.
“I’m wondering if it’s important for the U.S. Coast Guard to access the ocean?” asked Commissioner Ernie Foster. “Allowing the Coast Guard to do their job may be [more important] than concerns about subaquatic vegetation.”
Per Petersen, despite the current delay, the Corps is “still trying to get this realignment squared away and signed in April.”
With the March 31 deadline to dredge on the horizon, Commissioner Natalie Kavanagh asked about being proactive and garnering permission to dredge outside the allowed window, in case the current conditions improved and April dredging was possible. Corps representatives said that, if needed, a release to dredge after March 31 would likely be able to be obtained within a week.
Meanwhile, as the commission explores the feasibility of enlisting the bucket-and-barge dredge for near-term dredging, and anticipates the arrival of Miss Katie and the approval of the channel realignment to provide long-term relief, safe navigation through Hatteras Inlet remains a waiting game.
“Brian [Patteson] has been taking his boat to Oregon Inlet, because he can’t get out of Hatteras,” said Chairman Steve “Creature” Coulter. “By the first of April, there will be a large fleet trying to run trips every day or every other day. We need to get something done, and we need to get it done quickly.”
“I know everyone is a little discouraged, as am I,” Coulter continued. “But maybe something will materialize with the bucket and barge dredging, or maybe we’ll get rid of some of this low tide we’re having right now, and that will help us out. We can hope.”