By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on March 14, 2016
As Hatteras Inlet continues to shoal over, federal and state jurisdictional issues are jamming up options for long-term solutions that would give charter and commercial fishermen a more direct route to the Atlantic ocean.
On March 4, the Coastal Studies Institute in Skyco was the scene of a sometimes lively but important meeting for fishermen who rely on inlet for their livelihoods. Prospects for a quick and lasting solution were not promising, but a temporary fix could be in the works.
The shoaling of channels within the inlet has been a source of frustration for charter and commercial fishing interests.
The meeting was organized by Sen. Bill Cook and his staff and included senior officials from every major player and stakeholder involved with the troubled inlet.
They included Col. Kevin Landers, commanding officer of the Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District; Bobby Outten and Bill Rich, managers of Dare and Hyde counties, respectively; Jed Dixon, deputy director of NCDOT’s Ferry Division based in Manns Harbor and officers and NCOs from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Also attending were commissioners from Dare and Hyde counties as well as staff members from NCDOT and the Army Corps. While significant progress has been made towards alleviating some of the shoaling in Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Inlet has not been so lucky.
As the southern end of Hatteras Island has receded over the past decade, the inlet has widened significantly and exposed more of it to wave action and shoaling.
Shoaling has led to the abandonment of the old Hatteras to Hatteras Inlet channel by NCDOT’s Ferry Division.
That inlet, an almost straight route from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island was also used by commercial and recreational anglers to reach a deep water gorge in the Pamlico Sound that leads to the Atlantic Ocean.
The ferry service moved to a much more circuitous route called the Barney Slough and other vessels followed suit. While the alternate ferry channel to Ocracoke is open at present and able to be dredged by the state, fishing vessels must travel further south along the route to reach the gorge, and that small area is where shoaling, and jurisdictional issues arise.
One side of the ‘hot spot’ that needs to be dredged is under state jurisdiction, the other federal.
State dredges can’t legally operate on the federal side, which opens to the gorge, and even if they could, the exposure to the open ocean in that section of the inlet makes it unsafe for the state-owned dredge, which was designed to work in the sound, not the ocean.
In a letter to the Army Corps last December, Cook noted a major obstacle was that the Army Corps was not authorized to dredge in several trouble spots.
When Hatteras Inlet was established in the 1940’s, a federal channel was designated. However, over time, the channel has shifted away from its original boundaries, and the spots in need of dredging are no longer within federal jurisdiction and therefore, outside the authorization of the Army Corps.
Cook asked the Corps to amend the existing Federal Authorization to be more inclusive of the entire waterway. The Corps addressed that request in a Feb. 12 letter to Cook and at the CSI gathering.
The short version, as explained by Christine Brayman, a district deputy engineer for the Corps, is it would require an Act of Congress.
Putting that route aside, Brayman discussed five other options that could be undertaken by the state and/or county, all of which could involve lengthy timelines and none of which were likely to see any federal funding, even if the work were permitted by federal authorities.
Landers urged the local players to pursue one or more of the long-term options, saying that the quicker the process gets started, the sooner a potential solution could be found. He suggested that state and local officials pay for and conduct one of two “flavors” of environmental studies needed to find a long-term solution, such as a widening of the abandoned Hatteras-to-Hatteras Inlet channel, or even permitting Barney Slough as the alternate or preferred federal channel.
Landers reminded them that all of the options are “long-toothed” and at the end of the journey, the federal government may not approve the changes, even if non-federal money was used to dredge and maintain the “new” channels. He also reiterated his belief that not only would no new federal money be forthcoming, he would consider it a “victory” if current funding for the inlet, which is about $300,000, wasn’t cut.
Hatteras Island-based commercial and charter fishermen in attendance were not thrilled with what they were hearing. Several, including Capt. Steve Coulter and Capt. Spurgeon Stowe, noted that Oregon Inlet is constantly shifting, yet the federal government continues to dredge there and the U.S. Coast Guard relocates buoys as the channel shifts, a task the Coast Guard has abandoned in the shoaled portion of Hatteras Inlet.
They and others also noted that state and local officials were aware of some of these long-term solutions in the past yet no studies had been authorized, saying “we could be one or two years down that long road if we had started earlier.”
In the interim, Cook’s office is working on a short-term solution. In a letter dated March 9, Cook asked N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Sec. Don van der Vaart work with the Army Corps to put in a place a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would allow the Army Corps to accept state funds to work in a non-federal channel and to issue permits that would also allow federal sidecast and special-purpose hopper dredges to work in the troubled area.
If the state and the Corps can move quickly, then a channel could be opened before the all-important charter fishing season begins in the spring. Cook also mentioned at the meeting the possibility of funds from the Shallow Draft Navigation Channel and Lake Fund, especially in light of federal agencies no longer marking the channel.
As for the long run, Landers suggested state and local officials get creative and be ready to spend significant amounts of money.
In the meantime, he told the crowd: “What we do know, status quo, meaning that this inlet is just going to continue to kick our butts, because Mother Nature is winning.”