By JOY CRIST
It’s an announcement that many island residents have been looking forward to for a very long time - The signed MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) required to dredge the Connecting Channel is in hand, and work is slated to begin around the third week in April.
It’s also an announcement that’s been a long time in the making.
From the initial scoping meeting on August 13, 2016, until word was received at roughly 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, that the MOA was ready, islanders have been waiting with increased itchiness and anticipation to address a Hatteras Inlet problem that has steadily been getting worse.
As of Wednesday afternoon – (just 24 hours or so after word was received that the project could move forward) – reports came in that there were three boats in Hatteras Inlet that could not return home because the tide was too low to travel.
So the fact that the dredging can finally commence isn’t just good news, it’s instrumental to the local Hatteras village community where livelihoods depend on access to the water.
And considering that the summer of 2016 saw a number of cancellations for fishing charters and marinas in Hatteras village, (as rumors spread that boats couldn’t get out of the inlet), the dredging project is more important than ever.
“People are canceling trips right now. Captains are taking their boats to other marinas – like Ocracoke Island and Oregon Inlet - and running trips out of there, and visitors are canceling reservations at our Hatteras village marinas,” says Steve “Creature” Coulter, local Hatteras captain and board member of the Dare County Waterways Commission. “So it’s important that we get the work done, and get the information out there to the general public that we are getting the work done, and to come here in the summer and enjoy what we have to offer.”
It’s been a lot of waiting, and behind the scenes, it’s been a lot of work to get to this point. And there are a huge number of people to thank for their efforts, not the least of which are the members of the Dare County Waterways Commission, and the County of Dare itself.
Steve Coulter semi-jokingly says he was appointed to the Dare County Waterways Commission as a solution to his regular barraging at the monthly public meetings.
“I used to be one of the people sitting on the other side of the table, and that’s why they put me on the commission - to stop me from yelling and complaining,” he says with a laugh. “But in the end, it is a very long process, and it’s inherently very frustrating. But the county planner and the county commissioners – Bobby Outten, Danny Couch, Bob Woodard and Wally Overman - have included me in this since the beginning, and they have been nothing but supportive and helpful trying to get it completed.”
It’s technically taken nine months for the short term solution to come to fruition, but the length of time is simply due to the number of players who need to be involved.
There are roughly nine or ten agencies that have to sign and/or give their approval for dredging to commence, which includes agencies from the county, state, and the federal government.
And in addition to waiting for these various approval steps along the way, there were a couple hiccups that couldn’t be avoided, and which threw a small wrench in the works – and caused more than a bit of anxiety for everyone in the process.
For example, in late 2016, the state Office of Historic Preservation - one of the agencies involved in the permit review process - expressed concerns about the size of the "Big Box" area where dredging would occur, and whether an archeological survey was required.
“What that means in layman’s terms is more money, and more time,” said Coulter in an interview after the December 12, 2016, meeting. “So we pushed back on that.”
The issue was consequently resolved, and no archeological survey was required, but the suggestion certainly had all involved parties anxious, to say the least.
Another roadblock occurred when an extension was needed to schedule the dredging. Dredging the Connecting Channel in Hatteras Inlet is allowed from October 1 through March 31, but after this timeframe, an extension is required from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), CAMA and the Corps of Engineers to receive permission to dredge outside the permitted season. After the March 31 date passed, an extension was granted until May 15th which appears - at this time - to be sufficient for the scheduled April dredging to move forward. (Naturally, the dredging is dependent on weather, tides, and wind – just like everything else on Hatteras Island – but once the process starts, it hopefully won’t take very long to complete.)
The MOA is, simply put, the lynchpin in the ability to dredge in the next few weeks, and in the months and years to come as well.
Now that it’s in hand, the Army Corps of Engineers can conduct a final survey of the area, so that the dredge can follow the best water. The dredge scheduled to do the work – the Merritt – is expected to arrive and start working as early as April 20, and will likely begin the process between the 20th and the 26th.
And while it took a long time to obtain the MOA, the good news is that it looks like this process won’t have to be repeated for a very, very, long time.
“It’s my understanding that the only thing that would be needed in the future now is to renew the permits and renew the MOA,” says Coulter. “During this whole process, they told us that once we get it, renewing it is not a problem, as long as we can get money to do it.”
“We’ve been told that the Shallow Draft Fund has money and we should be able to use it,” he adds, “but [we’ll need to keep an eye] on next year’s budget in the state of North Carolina.”
So it’s a little like obtaining a driver’s license. It’s a huge pain to get it the first time - with tons of paperwork and annoyances along the way - but once you have it, it’s relatively easy to keep as long as you follow the rules.
Clearly, there’s been a lot of frustration in recent weeks that it’s taken this long, and understandably so. “We make money out of whole cloth for the state,” said Waterways Commission member Ernie Foster at the commission’s April 11 meeting. “85% of our money is from out-of-state visitors… And the frustrating part of this is the economy of Hatteras Village is taking a hit.”
“We’re just a microcosm of the people who are using that inlet,” said public commenter Captain Rom Whitaker at the meeting. “Lots and lots of people are using that inlet… [and] your blood boils to sit out there until 6 or 6:30 p.m. until you can get back [to the docks.]”
But along with the frustration is an appreciation of the agencies and people who have literally been working for months to get to Now.
There’s been a ton of effort to get to this point, and there’s also been a true cooperation of county, state and federal agencies to put all the pieces in place – (and Lord knows there are a lot of pieces.)
“We have traditionally never had a problem with Hatteras Inlet,” says Waterways Commissions member and County Commissioner Danny Couch. “It opened 1846 with a hurricane, and since opening, it was never a problem [for many years.] So there was no need for any federal designation, or any dredging.”
“But when you need to dredge, you have to go through the process. And it’s a long, hard road… But all the players have been pulling the wagon at the same time.”
These players include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Dare County Commissioners and County Manager Bobby Outten, the Coast Guard, the NCDOT Ferry Division, the Dare County Waterways Commission itself, and the NCDEQ – just to name a few. You could easily keep going, and to thank everyone on the list would require an entire second article that’s solely comprised of names. (Although James Medlock and Roger Bullock of the Corps would certainly be at the top of said list.)
“I cannot say enough good things about the Army Corps of Engineers,” says Couch. “These guys want to dredge - They want to do their jobs. The Coast Guard, the Ferry Division have also been fantastic... and there’s not a single weak link on the Waterways Commission.
“…The fact that it happened as quickly as it did is a testament to the fact that there is such a thing as bureaucratic efficiency,” says Couch. “At the table, there was county government, the Corps, the Coast Guard, the Ferry Division, the state – and everybody pulled together to do the right thing.”
Indeed, there’s an air of optimism in Hatteras Village, albeit a wary one, because at this juncture the really hard work appears to be behind us.
“We’re not counting chickens before they’re hatched, but it looks like the heavy lifting has been done,” says Couch. “There will be some maintenance needed in the future, but when the level of comfort is there for Hatteras Inlet, [our watermen] will be able to afford to fix their cars [or boats], have some spending money, or even put money away for their kids’ college funds. We haven’t had this level of comfort in 10 or 12 years, and all of a sudden, we’re on the verge of getting it back.”
There’s always a concern that there’s a second wader out there waiting to drop – and I’ll admit that I have been knocking on wood throughout various interviews, and throughout writing this article. So much so, that my knuckles are a little sore.
But there’s no denying that having the signed MOA is a great thing, and is the first step in spreading the word that yes, the Connecting Channel and Hatteras Inlet is open for business.
So summertime visitors, Come on down. The water’s fine. [knock, knock, knock.]
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” says Couch. “Once the Merritt gets there and starts dredging, you’ll start seeing the money flowing once again. The health of Hatteras Inlet affects the economy of every single village on this island, bar none… and I think we can start getting the word out that we’re getting it done.”