Lined with charter boats, old homes, restaurants and retail stores, Morehead City’s downtown waterfront has long been its biggest attraction, and a stone’s throw across the water, Sugarloaf Island has long helped protect the economic center of town from the brunt of coastal storms.
But Sugarloaf, which was created when Harbor Channel was dredged decades ago and forms a barrier to the wider expanse of water just inside Bogue Banks and Beaufort Inlet, has been eroding rapidly for years and causing alarm about the loss of protection from severe storm damage and flooding.
Now, with a $2 million state appropriation, a team of professionals is setting out to combine the best shoreline stabilization methods for the island in a way that officials said will balance shoreline protection, public uses and natural resource conservation. While the city has yet to secure all the money to complete the project, officials said the restoration would be incremental with $2 million enough for the first phase.
“When the town cut was first dredged and Sugarloaf Island was built back in the ’30s, I believe it was, it gave Morehead City the economic opportunity of growth on the waterfront,” Mayor Jerry Jones explained Thursday during a press conference at the Ottis Landing Deck on Shepard Street. “And over the years in my lifetime I’ve seen at least 1,000 feet of Sugarloaf erode away. It used to extend as far west as 12th Street and now it’s about Ninth Street. We’ve lost about three blocks and that erosion is accelerating.”
The erosion leaves uprooted trees and vegetation and the currents and wave exposure carry sediments and nutrients and degrade water quality.
Also in attendance at the press conference were members of the city council, waterfront business owners and Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, who helped secure the funding in the state budget.
“We are so blessed here in Carteret County to have our marine sciences, who have — all of them — banded together with the Coastal Federation to find the right solution, environmentally friendly solution for what I call the buffer, or the speed bump, protecting this beautiful city of Morehead City,” McElraft said at the event Thursday.
She said the funding was available for storm mitigation and resiliency because the legislature had built up copious “rainy day money.” The state’s rainy day fund, a budget surplus savings reserve for lessening the effects of sharp economic downturns and disasters, is projected to be about $4.75 billion by the end of next year.
Sanderson said that looking at Sugarloaf Island from above, from 20,000 feet or 10,000 feet with a drone, the tiny island might not look very important. “It’s very small on the grand scale of things, if you look at that, compared to our coastline. But because of this strategic location, it is extremely important to downtown Morehead City,” Sanderson said.
He said the North Carolina General Assembly shares the town council’s and coastal conservation group’s desire to be good environmental stewards.
“I don’t want, 50 years from now, somebody standing on this dock, saying, ‘Didn’t there used to be an island out there?’ and ‘Yeah, it was but it started going away, and even though we had technology to do something about it, we just didn’t think it was that important.’ Well, it is important,” Sanderson said.
Robert Purifoy owns and operates Olympus Dive Center at 713 Shepard St., directly across from Sugarloaf. He told Coastal Review that he had seen water coming up through the floorboards of his business during coastal storms, and while the structure is on pilings, it is normally over dry land. He said the restoration was a critical project for the waterfront.
City officials, aquatic restoration company Sea & Shoreline, the nonprofit North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, and Quible & Associates announced in July the start of the project to restore and protect the island using wave attenuators that disperse wave energy to reduce erosion and help rebuild the shoreline, seagrass plantings to stabilize sediment, create essential fish habitat and improve water quality, and a living shoreline to build salt marsh and upland vegetation.
The combination of methods should also address tree and shorebird habitat loss on the island and provide carbon sequestration benefits. Officials said ecotourism opportunities from increased beach area and improved water quality conditions were another expected benefit.
Brian Henry, director of Sea & Shoreline’s North and South Carolina offices, said the project was his idea for the Florida-based firm’s entry to the market here. He said the legislators supported the idea from the start.
“Without hesitation, they dove in very quickly and told us that this is very, very important, critical infrastructure for Morehead City and that they would see what they can do. A lot of things had to come together to get this money,” Henry said during the press conference.
He said the project is in the permitting phase with about another 35 to 40 days likely remaining.
“No questions or real objections at this point because we had a really good team on the front end that put all the work together from a technical perspective,” Henry said.
Coastal Federation scientist Dr. Lexia Weaver explained that the plan to use living shorelines was a natural, long-term shoreline-stabilization method.
“These living shorelines have proven time and time again to work significantly better, are more cost-effective, and they are incredibly more resilient to the effects of storms compared to the traditionally used sea walls that have hardened our shorelines and unfortunately have led to the reduction in our valuable salt marsh habitats and oysters, as well, in the process,” Weaver said.
She explained how the island protects the entire downtown area from the winds, waves, storm surge and other damaging effects of strong storms that have increased in intensity and frequency in the last few years.
“Unfortunately, the island has eroded due to these rising water levels and these strong storms,” Weaver said. “More than three whole city blocks of the island have been lost and it has exposed this waterfront to the direct effects of Mother Nature, and it continues to shrink in size. So, if nothing is done to protect this island, this waterfront is in trouble.”
The planned project components to be installed off the island’s shoreline will not impede navigation as they are to be placed in areas too shallow for vessels to navigate at high speed, according to information provided at the press conference. The breakwater will also be staggered to allow fishers to reach areas around them.