Posted on August 21, 2023
A relatively low-key meeting of the Dare County Waterways Commission, held Monday, Aug. 14 in Buxton, turned testy midway when members learned that permitting the local dredge Miss Katie to do more work in Hatteras Inlet might be delayed until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes a new inlet management plan.
Commissioners reacted with surprise when Ken Willson, Senior Project/Program Manager with Wilmington, N.C. – based Coastal Protection Engineering told them agencies reviewing Dare’s permit application indicated that they’d like to wait for the plan to be finished before signing off on expanded authorization for Miss Katie.
“The environmental team for the Corps is looking to put a master plan together for the Hatteras Inlet complex, and all the permitting work that we’ve been doing for last year might be on hold?” Commission Chair Steve “Creature” Coulter responded incredulously. “Because we’re waiting to see what the Corps’ master plan is? Am I getting that right here?”
Willson said he had just recently received the agency comments and had not yet been able to discuss the implications with the Corps. But he said he expects to hold conversations in the near future with all parties.
Part of the concern of the agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission — Willson said, is that “there’s too many people dredging in too many places,” including the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which maintains part of the ferry channel. The Corps forwarded the agency comments to the county in an Aug. 7 letter.
The county is requesting permits for the Miss Katie to work in the same Hatteras Inlet channels where the Corps is currently authorized. But it is also seeking additional areas to dispose of the material closer to where it is digging, Willson explained. “That makes it a lot quicker, a lot more cost-effective,” he said.
The new hopper dredge, based in Dare County and managed by the Oregon Inlet Task Force, is currently only permitted to dredge the inlet’s Connector Channel and dispose of the material nearshore the north tip of Ocracoke.
“One of the complicating factors is that everybody has a little bit of a different priority, a little bit of a different purpose and need,” Willson said. “The Corps has their federal channel . . . Dare County has certain priorities. The Ferry Division has certain priorities. And so it only makes sense that different people want different things and they’re not always going to perfectly align.”
But Coulter said the commission was not aware of the Corps’ decision to do the inlet management plan, especially since agencies had looked at all the issues before the Hatteras Inlet federal channel realignment was approved last year
“Because it’s been my understanding for the past several months since we went through the steps and had three scoping meetings it was gonna be fairly cut and dry that Miss Katie would be getting her permits fairly quickly,” the chairman said. “And now we’re hearing this. It’s a little frustrating, to say the least.”
Elaborating on his point, Coulter questioned the rationale behind spending years getting approval for the realignment, with the primary goal of providing flexibility and efficiency to maintain the inlet. But now, he said, the agencies are making it more difficult. Since the Corps’ dredges and funding are stretched thin, he added, the regulatory world has to be more accommodating to private industry and public/private options like the Miss Katie.
“They need to modify their permit process and come up with plans that make it easier for governments and private industry to do the work that can’t be done by the federal government now because of lack of funding,” Coulter said.
Todd Horton, chief of the waterways management section at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington district, had earlier told commissioners that there was expected to be a $3 million to $3.5 million shortfall in fiscal year 2023-2024 funds to do pipeline dredging in Rollinson.
Barton Grover, county Grants and Waterways Administrator, explained in a later interview that project costs in general have been exceeding budgeted funds because of inflation, increased demand, and overall supply chain glitches, among other issues.
“I think they’re moving forward regardless,” he said of the Rollinson project. “If they don’t get the extra funding, they’ll have to narrow the extent of the project.”
In more welcome developments, Horton said that the agency received a funding bridge of an extra $1 million to continue maintenance work in Rollinson Channel through the end of this fiscal year. Emergency authorization was recently obtained to do dredging this month just outside the authorized corridor at 12 Alpha, where shoaling has spread.
Horton also informed the county that the $125,000 cost share the county was expected to pay for the recent emergency dredging work at the Hatteras Harbor breakwater was able to be covered by the Corps.