Reprinted from Island Free Press
A public comment period is open on how to address future dredging operations in Hatteras Inlet, a step in a years-long process to make the inlet more navigable for the state-run ferry, as well as everyday charter and commercial fishing vessels.
The public comment period ends Nov. 18 and corresponds with a Draft Environmental Assessment, or EA, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the potential realignment of the Hatteras Ferry Channel in Hatteras Inlet.
The public can submit comments on the draft assessment to Emily.B.Hughes@usace.army.mil until Nov. 18. The Corps will then compile and respond to all comments, which will help shape the Final EA and probable Finding of No Significant Impact.
Maintenance of Hatteras Inlet’s navigation channels has been a constant goal of the Dare County Waterways Commission and stakeholders, for both economic and safety reasons. Much of mariners’ frustration in recent years has been directed at the fragmented regulatory status of the inlet’s passages — some federal, some state, some neither, some both. Realignment of the federal channel would help address these gaps.
“The long and the short of it is that the Army Corps of Engineers has not dredged past Barney Slough for almost 10 years now,” said Steve “Creature” Coulter, chairman of the Dare County Waterways Commission. “Since the end of the island started washing way, they quit trying to (dredge there), the Coast Guard pulled the buoys going to the gorge, and that’s when we formed the horseshoe route… and we’ve been having trouble with that route for the past 4 to 5 years.”
The Corps is proposing to add language that will expand the area included in the existing federal authorization for Rollinson Channel, a long-sought revision believed to be possible only through an act of Congress.
“Basically, it will be expanding the area we can dredge, in the aspect that it would make the entire horseshoe route federal,” said Coulter. “It’s no man’s land right now. As far as where the horseshoe turn begins, that’s where federal authorization stops.”
Another benefit of the realignment would be that federal funds would be available for future dredging projects, as the entire channel would be under federal authority and would no longer be a “no man’s land” with no entity — federal or state government — taking responsibility for dredging events.
The 132-page assessment outlines three possible alternatives for moving forward. The first alternative – No Action – is essentially dead in the water, as the Corps states in the EA that it is not a viable option, and that it’s more or less included for comparative purposes.
The other two options, which both include the channel realignment and future maintenance of the current horseshoe route, differ mainly in the date range for dredging.
Under Alternative 2, dredging could only occur from October through March, although emergency dredging could be done in the summer months with special permission. In Alternative 3, dredging could occur year-round, without obtaining special permission first.
Regular users of the inlet, including the Dare Country Waterways Commission, are urging the public to opt for Alternative 3.
“What it boils down to is we want option 3,” said Coulter. “The big benefits of Alternative 3 would be year-round dredging, the use of federal tax dollars to help maintain it, and there may also be a new offshore dump site (established) on the east side of Hatteras Inlet.”
Coulter notes that five of the dredging events over the past two years have been outside the current October-to-March window, and that the delays involved in asking for permission to dredge are inherently costly.
“Every time we have to ask permission, and have to wait for them to decide, it just keeps getting worse,” he said. “If you start shoveling when there’s only six inches of snow, it’s a lot easier to shovel later (in the winter) when 6 more inches fall. But if you have to shovel it all at once, it’s a pain in the butt, and in your wallet.”
“Based on the information in the EA, we expect the proposed federal action will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment; therefore, an Environmental Impact Statement will not be required,” Jenny Owens, Chief of Environmental Resources Section for Corps said in an email. “If this opinion is upheld following circulation of this EA, a Finding of No Significant Impact will be signed and circulated.”
Once finalized, the Finding of No Significant Impact will be signed by the Corps colonel and distributed to partner agencies, which is estimated to occur in late 2021 or early 2022.
In the meantime, Coulter and other mariners who regularly struggle with navigating the inlet hope that the endeavor, and particularly Alternative 3, will receive as much public support as possible.
“It’s a numbers game, that’s all it is. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong – as far as the government goes, they look at numbers, and they look at what’s popular,” said Coulter. “And hopefully, in the future, we can work together to keep all of it open – county, state, and federal. We all do better when we work together.”
This story is provided courtesy of the Island Free Press, a digital newspaper covering Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Coastal Review is partnering with the Free Press to provide readers with more environmental and lifestyle stories of interest along our coast.