Inlet update: Battle with shoaling is a draw, at best

By on November 30, 2011

Monday's soundings. Click for a larger view. (USACE)

A dredge has made some headway on the clogged channel, but the long-term outlook for Oregon Inlet is not good, a county panel was told Tuesday.

A combination of conditions may be contributing to shoaling under the main span of the Bonner Bridge, including protruding fenders, or bumpers, capturing sand, cross currents bypassing the channel west of the bridge and two new inlets.

Not to mention lack of money.

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Even before Hurricane Irene cut the new inlets to the immediate north and south, Bodie Island spit had been encroaching on the navigation route. Ideally, a strong current through the channel would help keep it clear, but that is not happening.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey leader Steve Shriver told the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission Tuesday that the sidecaster dredge Merritt had managed to scour the channel to depths of 4 to 6 feet in the problem area.

That is an improvement over measurements earlier this month that showed depths in some spots of less than 3 feet after a strong nor’easter. But it is not nearly enough for the commercial trawlers that would like to use the inlet for the winter fishing season and draw up to 11 feet.

Commercial fishermen reported at the meeting of hitting bottom in the channel and dangers to the Bonner Bridge. They once again insisted that a jetty on the north side of the inlet is the only solution.

After considerable study the federal government decided in 2003 to spend money to survey and dredge instead of on jetties.

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“It is an accident waiting to happen,” said waterman Dewey Hemilright. “And the sad thing about fixing problems, it seems like there has to be deaths before problems get fixed.”

The Coast Guard marks only the main channel, but many boats are bypassing that for routes through unprotected bridge pilings farther south. Coast Guard officials have been circumspect about use of the makeshift routes, saying the federal channel is their primary responsibility and the one they use.

Passage at Hatteras Inlet is not much better. The ferry division is using its smallest vessels. Inlet commission member Ernie Foster said he knew of a boat with a 5 1/2 foot draw that had to wait six hours for the right conditions to navigate the inlet.

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“I know of two charter boats that had to go to the boat yard,” because of damage, he said. “I have never seen it like this.”

The kind of money that had been available to maintain the Oregon Inlet channel — $4 million and up per year — will not be available anytime soon, if ever. The Corps has $1.8 million remaining of about $3.3 million it had scraped up to last through 2012.

Another $1.5 million has been promised by the state when the federal money runs out under a memorandum of agreement, said Bob Keistler, corps project manager in the Wilmington District.

Keistler said the corps is working with the state to try to streamline the cumbersome MOA process and get a five-year agreement in place. The main purpose of the state providing financial help is to keep boat traffic moving through the correct channel while the new, parallel bridge is built over Oregon Inlet.

Also in the works is a deal for $1.9 million to maintain ferry channels around the state, Keistler said.

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