BY CATHERINE KOZAK
With shoaling problems in Hatteras Inlet channels addressed by recent dredging, charter boat captains and other inlet users can be thankful, at least for the time being, to have safe passage.
An unusually brief meeting in Manteo this week of the Dare County Waterways Commission lacked the sense of crisis and brimming frustration that has often been reflected in members’ remarks. Instead, the focus was more on what has to be done in coming months to permit necessary dredging.
“The channel is pretty good right now,” Steve “Creature’ Coulter, a Hatteras charter boat captain, said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s hard to say if it’s going to continue to be clear.”
But there is another looming challenge to add to the heap of bureaucratic headaches involved in the inlet’s dredging projects: Where to put the dredged material?
“We don’t have any place to dump sand here, except Cora June Island,” Coulter said. But that island, located in Pamlico Sound near the Hatteras ferry dock, is almost at capacity.
For instance, the Corps is scheduled to start its regular maintenance dredging in February of the federal Rollinson Channel used by the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries, said Roger Bullock, the Corps’ deputy chief of operations. Not only is Cora June almost filled up, he said, parts of Rollinson Channel are comprised of unsuitable silty sand.
“We need to be able to place material that’s not beach quality or bird island quality,” Bullock told commissioners.
So-called DOT Island, an old island in the vicinity of the channel built from dredge material, has steadily been washing away over recent decades. Years of efforts to restore the island as a disposal site have fallen short, in part stymied by staff changes and regulatory requirements.
“Back in the ‘50s, they just did it,” Coulter said, referring to sand disposal in the sound. “Now everything has to go through the permit process. The bureaucracy is a little bit concerning.”
But it appears that progress is finally being made.
Sare Schweitzer, wildlife diversity biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said in a telephone interview this week that preliminary plans that would allow new dredged material to be placed on DOT Island are currently being reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Wildlife Resources did not find any conflicts concerning sensitive habitats, she said, such as for fish and submerged vegetation as well as shellfish beds. If DEQ and the Corps confirm that assessment, the permit could be approved by year’s end, she said, to be followed by a public comment period.
Once nearly five times bigger than its current size, DOT Island today is about 5-7 acres, Schweitzer said. If permitted, new dredge material could be placed within the parameters of the old project area, building the island up to a maximum of 25 acres.
In the process, she said, it would also create new nesting grounds for migratory birds. And in the nesting off-season between the end of August and late March, people would be allowed to access the island for hunting and fishing.
As to Cora June, a bird island which was created in the early 2000s, it’s close to its maximum capacity of about 25 acres, Schweitzer said. If survey samples find the dredge material to be silt, it would be allowed to be deposited on Cora June as long as it is covered thoroughly in courser beach quality sand. The silty sand is not permeable and leads to flooded nests, she explained. And since the particles are too fine to stay put, the sand would readily wash right back into the water.
In general, bird islands are kept no larger than 30 or so acres to discourage predatory mammals such as mink and fox from moving there, Schweitzer said. The state manages 20 of the islands from Wanchese to Core Sound. (Some islands in the Cape Fear River are owned by the state and managed by Audubon North Carolina.) Diverse vegetation, which takes about three years to take hold, is encouraged to foster bird nesting, but it also creates shelter for predators.
Mink especially have been known to swim over to some larger islands at low tide and settle in for some prime dining. Within no time, the animals can wipe out every egg and chick on the island. Unlike mink, Schweitzer said, fox haven’t yet taken up residence on any Hatteras bird island, but being equally clever and opportunistic predators, the possibility exists.
So far, she said, there are no plans to build brand new dredge material islands – once widely known as “spoil islands” – off of Hatteras, not only because of the time and cost involved, but because of the complexity.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to create new islands because we have a lot of concerns about habitat,” Schweitzer said. “The Pamlico Sound is a very productive area. You don’t want to destroy those habitats.”