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Neglected N.C. inlets are shoaling in

All along our coast, a vital lifeline of our commercial and recreational fleet is drying up.

The coastal inlets are suffering from willful neglect, from a decision to concentrate maintenance funds on deep-draft channels, and let the rest go. In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the Bush Administration didn’t budget money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do routine dredging in the shallow-draft inlets, but Congress scrambled and got some money for the dredging.

In fiscal year 2005 the process repeated itself, with less success. There isn’t enough money available today to do the required dredging work in North Carolina, where I am most familiar with the situation. Some other states aren’t much better off. There is no money proposed for shallow inlet maintenance in fiscal year 2006.

North Carolina has five shallow-draft inlets that need dredging: Bogue, New River, New Topsail, Carolina Beach and Lockwood’s Folly. The situation is so bad that Lockwood’s Folly and New River Inlets are unsafe for navigation. Don Rose, Commander of Coast Guard Group Fort Macon, said the Coast Guard had to remove the navigation buoys while the tender Blackberry was still able to get to them, to avoid leaving misleading buoys in bad locations. The Coast Guard has removed the navigational buoys in these two inlets, leaving only the lonely mid-channel buoys off the seaward ends of the channels. They plan to remove the buoys in other inlets as they get too shallow.

Colonel Charles R. Alexander, Commander of the Wilmington District of the Army Corps of Engineers, held a public meeting in Wilmington on Feb. 8 to get input on the best times to use the limited funds available. About 65 people attended the meeting.

According to the Engineers, it normally requires dredging about four times a year to keep the North Carolina inlets safe. For three of the inlets, the Engineers has only enough money for one dredging; for one, they can dredge twice. Carolina Beach Inlet has no money appropriated. In some cases, there is no money to dredge the channels that connect to inlets.

When the Coast Guard removes the buoys, they must store them somewhere. The Blackberry is a small buoy tender, old and slow. If the inlet is re-dredged, the Coast Guard has to bring the buoys back and set them again. This does not happen instantly, so there will most likely be a time lag between the end of the dredging and setting the buoys again.

In addition, if dredging is not done on a regular basis, an inlet may become too shallow for a self-propelled suction dredge to operate. Then it would require an ocean-certified pipeline dredge to reopen the inlet. The price tag for that is likely in the millions. In my opinion, this is akin to not paying off your credit card bills every month — let the charges build up too long, and you may find it nearly impossible to get out of debt.

The Wilmington Corps District has three self-propelled suction dredges, and must fund them through appropriations in order to use them. This year the dredges must lie idle much of the time due to lack of funds. If the dredges do not get a reasonable amount of operating time, the Engineers may be forced to lay up one or more of them. This is expensive to do, and extremely difficult to undo. Once the crews are laid off and scattered, getting and training new crews will be a long and expensive process.

The Wilmington Corp District is a pioneer in providing up-to-date information on its navigation Web site, Depth surveys are posted as soon as they are complete, including the latitude and longitude of waypoints for following best water. Text files of these waypoints can be downloaded into GPS chart plotters. Photographs of the inlets are posted as well.

Unfortunately, budget problems have changed the survey schedule from once a month to once a quarter. Three months can be an eternity in these inlets.

The Engineers can only work if they have money appropriated. Boat owners and operators can make the Administration and Congress hear their thoughts on the issue. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (www.atlintra, the N.C. Water Resources Congress, the N.C. Division of Water Resources, BoatU.S. and several local groups are working on this problem.