Posted on August 28, 2023
Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers continue to emphasize that they did not “decide” to abandon permanent structural solutions for the Ocean City Inlet’s shoaling problem. Legally, they had no choice.
In March, the Army Corps of Engineers canceled an inlet restoration project after a cost-benefit ratio analysis fell short of what the federal law required to authorize the $16 million the restoration.
Several million dollars of that cost would have had to have been funded locally, said Dan Bierly, chief of the Civil Project Development Branch for the Corps.
Models of the proposed improvements showed it would only reduce dredging by 50 percent, according to a March letter from the corps.
“What we’re doing has nothing to do with personal decisions that we’re making,” Bierly said. “BCR’s (Benefit-cost ratio) and things like that, those are law. They’re not even rules, they’re law. The funding we use and how we use it is written in law.”
“We have our requirements, and if it doesn’t meet the requirement, then Congress says ‘do not proceed,’” said Carlos Lazo, government affairs officer with the corps.
On Thursday, Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) took federal, state and local officials on a boat tour through the inlet to bring attention to the shoaling issue in the channel.
She and others, like Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, are calling on the corps to implement more comprehensive solutions beyond the current dredging schedule in order to fix it.
Since the inlet is a federal channel, the corps has responsibility over its maintenance.
Bierly said that the corps has been talking to the county and state about restarting the Ocean City Ocean City, Maryland, and Vicinity Water Resources study, an analysis of the local environment, similar to the one conducted in 1998.
“Maybe that study we recently conducted didn’t come up with positive recommendation because we weren’t able to do the in depth modeling, or more modeling or planning,” Bierly said.
The Assateague Restoration Project, which tangentially benefits Ocean City because of the maintenance it entails, came out of the 1998 study, Bierly said.
Bierly said in June that the corps uses two hopper dredges twice a year for the Assateague Restoration Project. While the dredges are working on Assateague, they often take some scoops from the inlet.
Carozza said one of the potential requests to the corps would be to fund a dredge that can be used specifically in the mid-Atlantic.
It’s unlikely a Corps district like Baltimore could acquire another dredge just by asking higher offices for it, and even if it did, it could require a very long approval process, Bierly said in June.
Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Shallow Draft Dredge, the “Murden,” is working 24-hour dredging operations for the inlet and Assateague Bypass, said Cynthia Mitchell, public affairs specialist with the corps.
It arrived on Aug. 19 and is expected to remain until Aug. 30.
“All materials dredged during these operations will be beneficially repurposed and placed off Assateague Island National Seashore,” Mitchell said.
The Murden is a split-hull dredge, rather than a hydraulic dredge, that is based out of the Wilmington district, said Eric Lindheimer, chief of the corps navigation branch.
While the Murden visits Ocean City inlet three-four times a year, it is stretched between dredging projects all around the East Coast, Lindheimer said.
“We’re trying our best to get our dredge out there to maintain safe and navigable channels,” Lindheimer said.
Bierly said that, with the current dredging, it doesn’t seem like the corps can ever get on top of the issue.
“We’re just catching up all the time,” Bierly said.
The same dredge is scheduled to come back in October, although its dredging schedule isn’t set for 2024. The Murden’s projects are dependent on weather, environmental restrictions and other dredging responsibilities on the East Coast, Mitchell said.
Dredge boat maintenance and major storms elsewhere also throw a wrench in the Murden’s scheduling, Lazo said.
With the corps’ limited budget and resources, Lindheimer said he can’t schedule the dredge for the inlet any more than it already is.
Dave Goshorn, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said much of the sand and refuse that comes from dredging the inlet could be used to help restore the eroding northern tip of Assateague.
Being that the Murden is a split-hull dredge, it produces a drier material after it is sucked up from the bottom. A hydraulic dredge produces much more material that is around 85 percent water, takes one-two years to dry, and couldn’t be used to restore the northern tip’s erosion. The Murden could produce material fit for restoring the erosion, Bierly said, but it can only drop material in the water off the shore of Assateague, and there would need to be new environmental permits to allow it.
The Assateague Restoration Project occurs several miles south of the island’s northern tip, Bierly said.
Carozza said Harris plans to organize a meeting with the corps sometime after Labor Day.
While such a meeting wouldn’t push the corps into immediate action since it’s dependent on congressional funding, Lazo said a meeting could be beneficial for helping officials understand the corps’ limitations.
Lazo said they could tell them, “This is what we’ve kind of already looked at, our limitations when it comes to the navigation vessels and the current authorities that allow us to proceed down certain paths. We can mention the effort of looking at that 25-year-old study to see if there’s a possible solution there, comprehensive solutions.”
Lazo thinks the information about the corps’ position could help inform officials on how to proceed with their inlet solutions, any solution they might come up with would probably happen separately from the corps.