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Emergency dredging in Hatteras Inlet will continue through March as Waterways Commission seeks to make dredging easier in the future

The sidecaster dredge Merritt works in the Hatteras Inlet in July 2021.

Posted on March 18, 2024

After desperately needed emergency dredging in the Hatteras Ferry Channel was nearly impeded last month by a time-consuming permit requirement, members of the Dare County Waterways Commission on Monday applauded the remarkably fast resolution that allowed the project to start.

“I think this was a very productive couple of months, or couple of weeks, especially,” said Commissioner Natalie Kavanagh, who was conducting the March 11 meeting in Manteo, while Chairman Steve “Creature” Coulter participated remotely.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had agreed earlier this year to seek an emergency declaration to dredge outside of the badly clogged Sloop Channel, the agency’s Jan. 22 request was denied in early February. The State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, said that a geophysical cultural resources survey would be needed before the permit could be approved, adding about 60 to 120 days to the timeline.

But Catherine “Cat” Peele, Planning and Development Manager with the N.C. Department of Transportation Ferry Division, subsequently reached out to a consultant who was already doing cultural survey work for the division in the vicinity of Ocracoke Inlet. As fortune would have it, their work was able to be expanded to the target area near Sloop Channel and completed in about two weeks,  allowing the Corps’ emergency dredging to proceed.

“We are just thankful that everything worked out,” Peele said, calling into the meeting remotely.

Months of dangerous shoaling in 2023 and early 2024 in the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel had created pinched and shallow portions of the horseshoe channel, causing some vessel damage from bumping bottom and restricting passage to one vessel at a time in some narrow spots.  The Barney Slough channel on the route’s Hatteras side had been dredged recently under an earlier emergency declaration.

With the emergency declaration now implemented for an alternate channel outside Sloop Channel, on the route’s Ocracoke side, the Corps’ dredge Merritt started work on March 1. It had to leave briefly because of bad weather, but returned to Hatteras Inlet on March 11 and is expected to continue dredging until the end of the month.

The emergency authorization permits dredging to a total depth of nine feet, Barton Grover, the Waterways Commission administrator, said in an interview. The goal is for the ferries to be able to use the channel after the dredge leaves, but it depends on the conditions and how much progress is made. Once traffic resumes, he said, the ferries should be able to save between five and 10 minutes each way.

“What we’re going to have with this new channel is you go kind of straight north, and then you take a 90-degree right to go towards Hatteras,” Grover said.

With the current channel, he said, when leaving South Dock going north into the sound, mariners would have to take a left and go around the shoal, almost like a roundabout.

“And so this new channel will hopefully be deeper,” Grover said. “It’ll be straighter and safer for sure.”

Ultimately, the Corps wants to modify the Rollinson Channel re-alignment to allow for more flexibility, Bob Keistler, Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Civil Works Programs and Project Management at the Wilmington district told the commissioners in a remote video call.

In November 2022, the agency approved the Environmental Assessment (EA) that expanded the authorization for the Corps to work in the entire horseshoe channel and most of the navigable areas of the inlet.

Keistler told commissioners that “in a perfect world” the Corps could dredge anywhere in the inlet, but barring that, it makes sense to widen authorized channels so that work adjustments could be done in a timely and efficient manner.

“The fear is that Mother Nature is going to move it,” he explained, referring to the current “best water” alignment of a navigation channel.

With Sloop naturally shifting southwest and Barney Slough seeming to be shifting west, it’s been difficult to maintain the channels within the authorized corridor, Grover explained.  But if the Corps proactively completes required surveys in expanded areas near the current channels, it would greatly speed up projects.

“What they really want to do is widen out that box so they can get in there and dredge it if a channel shifts,” he said. “Because right now, the corridor the Corps set up is a little bit tight in some areas, and the channel is naturally moving outside of this permanent corridor.”

By having surveys in place, it would avoid the months it takes to complete the work needed to meet regulatory requirements in emergency declarations.

“And they want to go in there and amend the EA to include a wider corridor to allow that water to naturally shift a little bit more and work with Mother Nature,” Grover said.

The Miss Katie in Hatteras on March 14, 2023.

Dare County is also in the process of modifying permits to allow the dredge Miss Katie to use inshore deep scour disposal areas to dispose of dredge material, he said.  Not only will those sites save as much as 30 minutes per disposal, they are also located in safer, more sheltered areas than existing offshore areas that are exposed to large storm swells. Of the inshore sites, one is in the center of the inlet, another is northwest of Sloop Channel, and another is northwest of Rollinson Channel.

Grover said the Corps will be seeking a permit modification so it can also use the inshore disposal areas. The goal is that the Miss Katie and the Corps’ government and contract dredges will have the necessary permits authorizing them to work as needed in the same areas.

In another update, Grover asked the commission to provide guidance in a coming meeting on using the available 2024 project funding, which reflects a 75% match provided by the state. Dare County has a total of $1 million for Hatteras Inlet, with the county providing $250,000 in matching funds; $900,000 for the Connector Channel, with Dare providing $225,000; and $100,000 for Rollinson Breakwater, with Dare providing $25,000.

There is also $210,000 in unused Dare County funds that are being held by the Corps.  Grover said he expects that the county will request the funds be returned, rather than kept for a future project.


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