Dredges are not a common sight along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway a 1200-mile commercial and recreational corridor that connects Norfolk Virginia to Miami.
In fact dredging has been reduced so much in the past decade that it has impacted jobs and threatens to ground much of the estimated $10 billion in commercial traffic and revenue generated from an increasing population of recreational boaters.
Until recently no stretch of the waterway was more difficult to pass than Lockwoods Folly only three feet deep at low tide. The inlet was closed to commercial traffic for most of this year forcing some commercial vessels into the dangers of the Atlantic Ocean. Barges passed only with Coast Guard approval. Even then tugs pushed them only at high tide.
In early September just as Hurricane Jeanne threatened the Carolina coast Truitt West a tow boat operator hugged the green buoy with his tow boat just south of the inlet at Lockwoods Folly and illustrated the problem with his depth finder.
|!|Right here it’s six feet – and it’s high tide. That’s about three feet of water at low tide|!| he said. |!|If somebody comes through here at low tide they’re going to find themselves high and dry real quick.|!|
Just like highways the waterway must be maintained.
Even at high tide the uninitiated can see the problem. Sand-colored water in the near distance. A change in the pattern of rolling water.
|!|Yep. That’s a sandbar at low tide|!| said West. |!|And over there in the middle of the channel you can see the waves roll quick and hard. That indicates shallow water.|!|
In 2001 the waterway got $18.5 million. Last year the figure was slashed to $6.7 million. This year the Bush administration budget proposal eliminated the waterway’s funding leaving the Corps of Engineers no money for dredging shallow draft and inland channels. The only reason the waterway isn’t closed already is because Congress has slipped token amounts for dredging into the budget each year.
In June the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved three million dollars for dredging. But the amount falls short of the seven million dollars the Corps of Engineers says it needs just to maintain the 308 miles of waterway in North Carolina.
That token funding gave the Corps of Engineers the ability to pay for emergency dredging at Lockwoods Folly. Dredging began there Sept. 26. But it’s a Band-Aid.
Congress created the waterway in 1938 with an authorized depth of 12 feet at low tide. Those depths have been ignored for so long that engineers estimate it would cost $100 million to restore the waterway to an average 10-foot depth. To maintain the five-state waterway engineers estimate that $20 million is needed each year for dredging.
At Lockwoods Folly Cottrell Contracting Corporation from Chesapeake Virginia won the $1.5 million contract to dredge to a 12-foot minimum depth. Cottrell used the 16-inch cutterhead dredge Richmond and booster to remove 100000 cubic yards of shoaling before moving to New River Inlet. (See this month’s cover) Dredged sand is deposited in upland dredge material placement sites.
Frank Hall project manager with Cottrell Contracting says the dredged sand may be used on the area beaches after the work is complete.
But it’s going to take more than dredging to fix the problem.
Pointing out from his towboat the new residential and commercial developments that feature bare earth reaching to the shores of the waterway West said local restrictions are needed to keep soil erosion at bay.
The waterway is too important to give back to nature said Rosemary Lynch executive director of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association.
|!|Commercially barges push millions of tons of fuel military equipment and assorted goods along the waterway; enough to fill two million tractor-trailer rigs annually|!| she said.
That’s almost two million additional trucks each year on I-95 and U.S. Highway 17 not to mention the recreational boaters who troll the safe waters of the inland waterway. If the waterway fills with silt commercial traffic will be forced to congested coastal highways and the less forgiving open sea.
|!|Recreational boaters spend an estimated $300 per day at marinas restaurants and other businesses along the waterway|!| Lynch said.
But according to Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)’s office no official study illustrates the full economic impact of the waterway.
While the commercial tonnage that travels through the waterway via barge is known the numbers are askew because operators light load in order to safely pass shallow areas. Commercial fishing vessels empty barges and pleasure craft are not counted. There is a plethora of facts about the economic impacts of recreational boaters but no conclusive study. Local officials estimate that the average boater spends hundreds of dollars each day but no one has counted how many boats travel the waterway each year.
Economic studies may also provide insight about dredging jobs and employment statistics along the coast.
Rep. McIntyre believes the economic impact study would help him illustrate the need for continued funding.