Posted on November 27, 2023
Pipeline dredging in the Hatteras Ferry Channel is not expected to happen this winter while agencies continue to seek solutions to funding shortfalls and dredge material disposal complications, a state ferry division official recently informed the Dare County Waterways Commission.
“We’re told it’s on hold until we can figure things out,” Catherine Peele, planning and development manager with the N.C. Ferry Division, explained during the Nov. 13 meeting in Manteo. “So, we’re at the ready and helping out every way we can.”
The U,S. Army Corps of Engineers’ sidecaster dredge, responding to a request from the Ferry Division, had spent about a week earlier this month working to a clear a narrow and shallow portion of the ferry channel that had been affected by recent weather.
“They sent the Merritt,” Peele said, referring to the sidecaster. “It’s helpful, but not the best.” Although the Corps’ hopper dredge Murden was the preference, she said, it was in Virginia and not expected to be available to work in Hatteras until December.
According to Waterways Commission administrator Barton Grover, the Corps found that the pipeline project cost increases have left its budget about $3 million short. With Cora June Spoil Island almost at capacity, and DOT Island mostly submerged, another issue is that there is no easy answer to where to put the sand after its removed from the channel. By law, channels cannot be dredged unless there is an approved site to dispose of the material.
“It’s now a completely underwater shoal,” member Ernie Foster said about DOT Island, a spoil island that was once 25 acres of seabird habitat. “The birds aren’t doing too well.”
There is not enough room on Cora June for the amount of material that would be piped during the proposed project, Grover said. And with DOT Island now mostly underwater, the piped material would have to be contained by sandbags, which are expensive.
“We’re having meetings trying to figure out the project scope,” he said. Even if the dredged material was put on the beach, he added, it would require benthic monitoring, which would not be covered by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds allocated for the project.
At the same time, Grover said in a later interview, the Corps is looking at dredging Big Foot Slough in the near future. Big Foot has been a persistent problem area near the Silver Lake ferry terminal that has hindered ferry traffic transiting the Ocracoke-Cedar Island and Ocracoke-Swan Quarter routes on and off for the last few years.
The good news is that the Hatteras Inlet Management Plan should be finalized by January, and possibly sooner, Ken Willson, Dare County dredge projects consultant with Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina, attending remotely, told commissioners. The comments have been responded to, he said, and the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit process is no longer on hold.
“The point being is there are no balls in our court right now,” he said. And when the permit is in hand, the county will start the process of securing a just-in-case permit to dredge closer to the ocean.
“Once we see that, we need to re-engage these agencies about permitting the ocean bar and disposal areas for the Connector Channel dredge material,” Willson said.
The plan would seek a modification to the existing Connector Channel permit to include the bar and to allow additional disposal areas for the Miss Katie, the Dare County based state dredge.
The Miss Katie dredged in the Connector Channel on Oct. 8- Oct. 14, removing 24,300 yards of material, Grover said. So far, $377,000 has been spent for the Miss Katie, with $623,035 remaining to spend until June 30, 2024.
When the inlet management plan is finalized, the dredge will be permitted to work in much of Hatteras Inlet. “We will continue discussion on what to do once we get the Miss Katie permit,” Grover said.
In another update, Patrick Tallant, officer in charge for Coast Guard Aids to Navigation, said that the final determination on whether to demolish a damaged light tower off Pole Road on the southern tip of Hatteras Island will be made at some point after a 90-day public comment period is closed. Once 80 feet tall, the metal tower now stands at 40 feet, and an informal survey of Hatteras Inlet boaters revealed no reason so far to repair it.
“I have the permit sitting on my desk for another 5-year lease,” Tallant said. “Right now, we’re going to keep it as it is.”
Meanwhile, the Ferry Division is being proactive and going big in its next ask for the State Transportation Improvement Program, the state Department of Transportation’s 10 year plan for project construction and funding, Peele told commissioners. The STIP was recently updated after being stalled during the pandemic, but it has typically been updated every two years. The Ferry Division is part of DOT.
“We’re asking to replace every single ferry we have in the fleet because they’re aging out,” Peele said. “So we’re putting everything in to see how they score out. It’s not just vessel projects, but also ramps. We’ve gone for the whole thing.”