Inlet money will be gone in 30 days, Judge says

By on April 18, 2011

Dare County commissioners offered little encouraging news Monday to about 30 watermen looking for a long-term fix for shoaling at Oregon Inlet.

Chairman Warren Judge told the group that a larger hopper dredge brought in last weekend to clear the channel around the clock for 30 days would use up the rest of the money budgeted for the inlet this year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Gov. Bev Perdue offered to chip in $500,000 if the county can come up with $2.5 million to keep work going, Judge said.

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“There’s just not two and a half million dollars in the budget to put into that project,” Judge said.

The commercial fishermen filed in near the end of the Board of Commissioners meeting as County Manager Bobby Outten was wrapping up a summary of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011-2012.

Willie Etheridge, who owns a seafood company in Wanchese, told the commissioners that the inlet was a federal waterway and that the federal government had failed in its responsibility year after year. But he said county commissioners needed to take more of a leadership role in getting action from Washington.

“I’ve been in business for 35 years and I’ve never had to lay anybody off,” he said. “Not one time. But that is coming up.”

Judge said that he and other county officials have been in constant contact with Washington and Raleigh. He said that it was possible the corps could move some money in its budget to continue dredging.

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But several of the commissioners expressed frustration with what they said was their perception of federal officials who say they are listening but deliver minimal results.

On Thursday, Gov. Beverly Perdue said the state was ready to commit $1.5 million to help with dredging but learned that the corps would not make the larger hopper dredge, Currituck, available until mid-June.

Then on Friday, it was announced that the Currituck would arrive Saturday, and the governor said the state would provide $500,000 if the county could come up with $2.5 million, Judge said. The county cannot.

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Meanwhile, it is not clear if the $1.5 million, which had been authorized by the state transportation board, might still be available.

Outten said that the $1.5 million would be enough for a smaller dredge to maintain the channel until the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30.

With earmarks and add-ons excluded from the House budget, the prospects for long-term funding are not good. President Obama’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year included only $1 million. Annual dredging costs can range from $4 million to $10 million or more.

Some have questioned why Nags Head’s beach nourishment project, which is scheduled to start in mid-June, could not be piggybacked with dredging at Oregon Inlet.

But Outten and Judge said the finer sand from the inlet is incompatible for Nags Head’s beaches. The town’s permit calls for using sand from offshore, and even if Oregon Inlet spoil were a possibility, it would require another lengthy permitting process.

Judge suggested that money from the county’s beach nourishment fund could be used to dredge Oregon Inlet if the sand could be put onto U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beaches south of the inlet. Under legislation authorizing it, occupancy tax money set aside for beach nourishment could not be used for dredging alone.

But pulling sand from the inlet and putting it onto beaches would also entail environmental studies and permitting that would take at least a year and probably much longer.

The arrival of the Currituck put a plan to restrict access to the inlet on temporary hold. A smaller dredge was having trouble keeping up with the shoaling, and the Coast Guard was ready to ban vessels longer than 80 feet and more than 100 gross tons. That would exclude many trawlers but would not affect charter boats.

Because Bodie Island spit has migrated so far south, boats have been forced to take a sharp jog to get under the navigation span of the Bonner Bridge. Some vessels were using a natural channel to the south, where there is no fender system to protect the pilings of the aging bridge.

Many trawlers have been bypassing the inlet and operating out of Virginia.

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