Inlet conditions improve, task force formed

By on January 16, 2013

State Sen. Bill Cook, left, and Rep. Paul Tine. (Rob Morris)

As conditions at Oregon Inlet slowly begin to improve, the Dare County Board of Commissioners has authorized a new task force that will look for possible long-term fixes to keep the troublesome channel clear.

Commissioners formed the panel after an emergency meeting Tuesday night with commercial fishermen, boatbuilders, charter captains and others.

Meanwhile, the channel under the navigation span of the Bonner Bridge has gotten deeper with better weather and dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Up until last week, the channel was essentially closed with depths of 4 feet and sometimes less measured under the bridge. Last Monday, about 150 watermen and boat builders crowded the Board of Commissioners meeting, describing what they called a “crisis situation.”

The channel was so shallow that even the Coast Guard could not get out to reposition markers displaced by Hurricane Sandy at the end of October and subsequent nor’easters.

Following the emergency session, Coast Guard Cmdr. Paul Bertram told the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission that the channel is now deep enough to allow its boat to begin putting the markers back in place. Work will be done as weather permits, which could be as early as today.

He told the waterways commission that top brass at one point was preparing to declare the inlet closed but decided to wait and see if things improve.

More than 50 people attended the meeting.

The season for striped bass trawling in the ocean starts next Tuesday. Trawlers need at least 8 feet of depth to get through the inlet. But many companies have closed, have moved or are taking their catch to Virginia and safer harbor.

Channel depths have also created problems for boat builders. Customers for repairs are reluctant to contract with local companies because of the access problems.

At about the same time commissioners were meeting Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed additional provisions for Hurricane Sandy relief. The $51 billion package includes $742 million for the Corps of Engineers to clear channels and repair projects damaged by the storm.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said last month that the Corps would spend $9 million of the money to dredge Oregon Inlet and interior channels and another $2 million for the Hatteras ferry channel.

The dredge Currituck was out for repairs but was expected to be back to work at Oregon Inlet Thursday. (Pat Morris)

The package goes back to the Senate, which is expected to pass it, then to President Obama for his signature. More money would come just in time. The corps has about $325,000 — or 10 days worth of work — left in its budget, according to Roger Bullock, chief of the navigation branch for the Corps’ Wilmington District.

But even with an influx of new money, the amount represent about what the corps was once receiving annually to clear the inlet. The federal government had pledged to survey and maintain the channel at 14 feet deep and 400 feet wide as an alternative to a jetty on the north side of the inlet and extending the terminal groin on the south side.

Construction of a new bridge over Oregon Inlet is seen as a permanent solution because the higher navigation spans will run over a natural channel that is up to 40 feet deep. But hanging over initial work is a lawsuit by environmental groups, and construction is projected to take five years

County commissioners see the new task force as a vehicle to find and lobby for fixes beyond the current patchwork of maintenance.

Four members of the Oregon Inlet Users Association will be on the task force along with one from the Oregon Inlet commission, one from the county Board of Commissioners and the chairman of the Wanchese Seafood Park board chairman.

Also attending the emergency meeting were newly elected state Sen. Bill Cook and state Rep. Paul Tine. They both pledged to push for help in Raleigh. Cook said that Oregon Inlet needs a full-time advocate to keep the issue at the forefront.

“It sounds like a joke, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said. “You need a wheel. Somebody who’s got the time to devote to just this issue and keep pounding and squeaking. And eventually, you’ll get something done.”

Harry Shiffman, representing the inlet users association, proposed hiring former Kill Devil Hills Mayor and retired county planning director Ray Sturza as the task force’s executive director. The board of commissioners will decide on funding and staffing the panel at its next meeting, which is Tuesday.

The navigation channel under the bridge is marked by the brackets on the left. (USACE)

Sources of funding for the inlet are likely to be at the top of the panel’s to-do list. The corps and the state have a memorandums of agreement that allows contracting with the federal government to do the work. Though often short on money, the corps has the equipment and permits to do the work.

Warren Judge, chairman of the board of commissioners, suggested that if dredging could be tied to widening the beach on Hatteras Island, some money might be available from the county’s beach nourishment fund.

At the Inlet and Waterways Commission meeting that followed, Steve Shriver of the Corps’ Survey Section said the channel under the bridge is as deep as 7 feet now, but shoaling on the north side still needs to be cleared out. East of the navigation span, the channel is 300 to 350 feet wide and 8 to 9 feet deep.

Shoaling, however, has built up on the outer bar where the channel is now marked.

Solutions include dredging with the Corps’ larger vessel the Currituck after it finishes work near the bridge, or moving the channel north, where the water is deeper. The latter would likely be complicated by the logistics of arranging for an oceangoing ship to move the outer markers.

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