A Coast Guard captain said Friday that he is prepared to close Oregon Inlet to recreational and commercial boat traffic within weeks if sand continues to accumulate in the dynamic waterway faster than dredging can remove it.
The buildup of sand – shoaling – around the Bonner Bridge has increased exponentially, elevating the navigational risks to dangerous levels. Capt. Anthony Popiel said safety is his main concern in deciding whether to close the inlet or implement restrictions.
“It seems like it could be as soon as the next couple of weeks,” he said.
An extended closure of Oregon Inlet could seriously affect the Outer Banks’ fishing and boating industries, estimated in a 2006 Dare County report to annually produce more than $682 million and support 9,851 jobs. The inlet is the only route to the Atlantic Ocean between Hampton Roads and Hatteras Inlet.
“It would be devastating,” Dewey Hemilright, a commercial fishermen out of Wanchese.
Dare County’s civilian employment averages about 23,000 during the peak summer months.
Water depths near the bridge are approaching 9 feet in spots that would typically reach 20 or 30 feet.
Trawlers – large, commercial fishing boats – are barely able to pass beneath the Bonner Bridge. Hemilright, who does not operate a trawler, said he’s witnessed the vessels waiting hours for high tide to enable them to navigate the channel.
In some areas, “it’s not a function of even shallow water,” Popiel said. “It’s actual beach.”
North Carolina legislators and Dare County officials are scrambling for answers.
President Barack Obama’s proposed budget sets aside $1 million for Oregon Inlet dredging next year, a reduction from recent funding levels of $4 million to $6 million and further yet from the $10 million to $20 million that studies have shown is needed.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredges in Oregon Inlet almost daily to keep the channel navigable. Without proper funding, there’s only so much it can do, corps spokeswoman Penny Schmitt said.
“This is not looking good,” she said Friday about the budget outlook.
Dare County Manager Bobby Outten called the situation “critical.” He said he began hearing reports about a week ago that commercial fishermen had begun venturing north to Norfolk to access the ocean.
In an e-mail, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said she is working “to explore all possible options to get this channel clear and ensure that boats are able to pass safely under the bridge.”
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said that earmarks are inappropriate “in the midst of a fiscal crisis.”
“However, the corps doesn’t need an earmark to dredge the inlet and should have sufficient funds in their budget for a necessity such as this,” spokesman David Ward said. “We will continue to work with them to avert a closure.”
Funding to dredge Oregon Inlet has shrunk nearly every year for a decade, Schmitt said.
In 2009, Congress appropriated more than $12 million in stimulus money to dredge, but a storm washed away those efforts soon after the project ended, Schmitt said.
“It’s constant, constant housekeeping, and there is no place more dynamic on the Carolina coast than Oregon Inlet,” she said. “Keeping up with it is hard to do, and it’s costly.”