Coastal Dredging in North Carolina

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dredgThe North Carolina coastline has a wide variety of inlets that are critical to coastal commerce, such as for commercial traffic at ports, commercial and charter fisherman, and recreation & tourism. According to a report to the Joint Transportation Appropriations Committee by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), routine dredging and maintenance are necessary for these inlets to remain open to support North Carolina’s economy.

An article in the News & Observer in June 2015 estimated that the state’s biggest shipping customer was losing $2 million a month because the sand-clogged navigation channel at Morehead City was too shallow to handle fully laden freighters. State officials sought emergency measures because of the direness of the situation, and the Obama administration freed up $4.1 million for Morehead City. Hopes were high that the added funding would be bring some relief by the end of summer 2015, helping the state’s second-busiest port get back to normal traffic patterns.

There are two types of federally authorized channels or inlets in North Carolina: shallow draft inlets and deep draft inlets. Shallow draft inlets refer to those with a 15-foot depth or less, while deep draft inlets are those of more than 15-foot depth. There are two deep draft inlets in the state: Wilmington Harbor & Morehead City. Historically, deep draft inlets have not been an issue in North Carolina. It is shallow draft inlets that have been the cause of biggest problems, due to their tendency to shoal rapidly.

What Is Dredging

The National Ocean Service defines dredging as “the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors, and other water bodies…” necessary “because sedimentation—the natural process of sand and silt washing downstream—gradually fills channels and harbors.” For more information on the actual dredging process and how it works, check out this guide.

There are primarily two types of dredging:

  • Maintenance dredging: the periodic removal of accumulated sediment from navigation channels and harbors to maintain authorized depths and widths
  • Construction dredging: the removal of materials to facilitate new navigation channels or water projects, such as locks and dams

Funding for Dredging in North Carolina

When inlets are federally authorized, it means that the federal government maintains them if funding is available. A fact sheet from the Army Corps of Engineers – Wilmington District describes the federally authorized shallow draft waterways and harbors along the North Carolina Coast in addition to funding recent allocations for each project. Federal funding has been supplemented occasionally with state funds, particularly as federal funding has declined in recent years. According to a report from the Assistant Secretary for Environment, in 2011, federal funding for shallow draft channels in North Carolina was $12.7 million; while in 2015, it was $6.4 million – a 50.4% decrease.

There are alternatives to federal funding, such as developing a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Army Corps and providing state funding to the Corps to conduct dredging. The Corps already has permits for dredging, as well as trained staff. In North Carolina, potential MOAs are in development for both the Morehead City channel and the Oregon Inlet. Yet the largest hurdle remains to secure adequate funding sources.

One way to secure additional funding has been the development of the Shallow Draft Navigation Channel & Lake Dredging Fund in North Carolina. The fund provides the state share for dredging projects, and requires that state funds are matched 50-50 with local funds. The state portion of the fund comes from a small percentage of the gas tax, as well as a percentage of boater registration fees.

Additionally, in March 2015, a bill was proposed in North Carolina that would divert beach nourishment funds to pay for dredging the Oregon Inlet. The bill proposes using “some or all of the proceeds from occupancy taxes” toward the non-state share of dredging costs.

When proposed in the state budget for 2015, the language was changed to eliminate the provision that would allow counties to take from beach nourishment funds to pay its matching share of the cost. Instead of a 50/50 percent state-local match, in counties deemed “tier 1 counties,” the match will be 25 percent local, 75 percent state, while “tier 2 & 3 counties” will provide one local dollar for each two state dollars – a 33.3/66.6 percent match. One local article mentioned that the 2015 budget bill also included a $3 million set-aside for the state share to enter into an MOA with the Army Corps of Engineers to allow nonfederal funding of dredging Oregon Inlet. Additionally, one percent of gas tax proceeds will be dedicated to shallow-draft dredging.

Ben Lesher is a graduate student in both the Master of City and Regional Planning and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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