Inlet to remain open, but funding crisis looms

By on March 16, 2011

Though choked by shoaling, Oregon Inlet will remain open, the Coast Guard said Tuesday, but a longer-term funding problem looms for the only ocean access between Virginia and Hatteras.

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers battles an encroaching spit on the north side of the channel, funding in the president’s budget for 2012 provides just $1 million to maintain the waterway.

That represents a fraction of the money it takes for an endless cycle of dredging to keep the inlet safe and boat traffic moving.

Meanwhile, the Corps’ current funding will last only until the first week of July, three months before the end of the 2011 budget year, and boats are using an unmarked channel under the Bonner Bridge.

Problems at the inlet drew a large crowd to Tuesday’s meeting of the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission, a Dare County advisory panel that was told the main channel just east of the Bonner Bridge is only 4 to 5 feet deep.

Coast Guard Chief Hank Macchio, who heads the local Aids to Navigation Team, said, however, that there were no immediate plans to close or restrict passage through the inlet. He said the Coast Guard had received phone calls and seen Internet rumors suggesting it would shut down the channel and pull its aids to navigation.

“We intend to allow navigation in and around the Bonner Bridge and Oregon Inlet as long as we possibly can,” he said.

He urged caution and recommended closely monitoring information regarding the channel.

Although the number of winter storms did not appear to be abnormally high this year, the spit on the north side of the inlet has crept perilously close to the main span of the bridge, where the channel is maintained, said Roger Bullock, chief of the Navigation Branch with the Corps of Engineers Wilmington District.

“I think this year has been unusual,” he said.

A shift in prevailing winds from the southwest during the summer probably will not be enough to fully offset the winter push of sand into the inlet, he said.

The consequences of shoaling extend beyond navigation. Because passage under the main span of the Bonner Bridge is next to impossible, boat and trawler traffic has been moving through an unmarked channel under the adjacent span to the south.

That channel is not maintained by the Corps. There are no fenders — essentially structures that act as guardrails to protect pilings — and vessels pose a threat to the aging bridge. The North Carolina Department of Transportation has said it will not install fenders because it would encourage continued use of an area of the bridge not intended or built for boat traffic, according to Macchio.

Meanwhile, the channel just east of the main span, which has fenders, has become too shallow and dangerous for the corps to use its heavy-duty dredge, the Currituck, and smaller vessels are struggling to get the job done.

Bullock told the commission that budget proposals for Oregon Inlet maintenance had averaged about about $5.5 million a year with actual funding coming in at around $7 million since 2003.

The corps received a big chunk of stimulus funding in 2010 that boosted the Oregon Inlet budget to $21.5 million. That allowed extensive dredging, but much of the work east of the bridge was quickly undone.

He said neither the Currituck nor the smaller dredges “can keep up with Mother Nature moving sand like that.”

Funding for Oregon Inlet historically has created anxiety in Dare County. But a delay in passage of a budget can result in continuing resolutions that maintain funding at current levels.

The president’s budget proposal for 2012 reflects an overall decline in financial support for what are known as shallow draft channels, which tend to serve recreational purposes rather than commercial shipping.

Federal priorities are based on shipping tonnage. So channels like Oregon Inlet’s move down the list, even though one study suggested that it supports about $680 million of the local economy annually.

Bullock said the president’s proposed budget provides funding for about 150 days of dredging for shallow draft inlets on the entire East Coast. The current budget finances more than 300 days of dredging north of Norfolk alone.

Warren Judge, the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said that he and other commissioners have had numerous conversations with the region’s Congressional delegation as well as with Gov. Beverly Perdue.

He told the waterways commission that local officials will continue to push for a solution to the funding problem.

“None of this, ladies and gentlemen, is to tell you that we’ve got a magic wand or money’s going to be forthcoming. But it’s what I know what to do and that is to keep it . . . in their face constantly,” he said.

Bob Peele, director of the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park, said the big turnout at Tuesday’s meeting and discussions with state and federal officials had already elevated the issue.

He said officials were looking at “every possible funding source we can think of.”

Several speakers offered their own ideas, the most frequently mentioned being a jetty on the north side of the inlet.

“We have lost the rest of this season, the trawlers have,” said fish dealer Billy Carl Tillett.

“Nobody, not me. not my daddy or nobody in this room has ever seen it do what it’s done this winter. We’ve seen it stop us. We saw it a couple years ago . . . but we didn’t see it come dry, and it’s dry pretty close to the bridge. We don’t have much longer.”

State law prohibits hardened shoreline structure such as jetties, but legislation allowing an exception for terminal groins at inlets has passed the state Senate.

Even if the bill becomes law, it contains numerous restrictions. A jetty on the north end of Oregon Inlet would be on federal land, another complication, and it would be hugely expensive.

One speaker suggested using the debris from the old Bonner Bridge after the new one is built.

“Everything’s on the table as far as I’m concerned,” said Michael Davenport, chairman of the inlet and waterways commission.

Related story in the Island Free Press: NCDOT gives companies an extra 30 days for bridge proposals »

Top photo: From a terminal groin study ordered by the General Assembly.
Other photos from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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