The sands of time

Shallow funding prevents dredging from pacing nature, causing commerce to ebb on the Intracoastal Waterway.
By Edward Martin and Robert C. Shafer

It’s usually sunrise, not midmorning, when the Silverado leaves Carolina Beach for waters around Frying Pan Shoals. But the fishermen aboard, who had driven from Greensboro and spent the night at a motel to get an early start, don’t complain. Captain Dennis Barbour has explained that Carolina Beach Inlet, his access from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean, has become so shallow his charter boat must catch a favorable tide. Still, he scowls as he eases the throttle forward and picks up speed. Breakfast, not brunch, is the time to be baiting up.

Barbour isn’t the only disgruntled waterman on the Tar Heel coast. On Albemarle Sound, Bos Smith complains of a “critical lack of navigable depth” in the inland waterway — barely 4½ feet in many places. He’s operations manager of a barge company that transports wood pulp and other cargo. “We can only partially load our smallest barges. A fully loaded jumbo barge would get stuck in the mud.” But half-loads slash profits, one reason many barge companies have gone out of business. Even recreational boaters run aground.

This is the plight of North Carolina’s leg of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the inlets that are its off-ramps to the sea. It meanders more than 300 miles from the marshes of Calabash on the South Carolina line, crossing sounds and bays, snaking up and down creeks and rivers and through ditchlike channels such as the Alligator-Pungo River Canal in Hyde County before exiting the dark, forest-lined Great Dismal Swamp Canal and parallel Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal bordering Virginia’s Hampton Roads region. Its diverse sections share one thing — they are in trouble.

Nature is strangling the waterway, and despite its commercial and recreational value — a 2006 state study attributed $257 million in annual sales and 4,000 jobs paying $124 million a year — politicians are neglecting it. Once a major shipping route for petroleum, wood, agricultural products and other heavy, bulky materials, its barge traffic peaked decades ago, says UNC Wilmington economist Chris Dumas, one of the authors of a new economic-impact study for the Oak Island-based North Carolina Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association. Some sections carried 5 million tons of cargo a year, says Frank Reynolds, an economist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington. The latest figures show the most heavily used stretch, between the Pamlico and Neuse rivers, moving just 1.5 million tons.

Some of the decline can be laid to increased competition from truck and rail. But the waterway remains vital to users such as Nucor Corp., which sends scrap metal to feed its steel mill in Tunis by barge, the same way PCS Phosphate Co. ships production from the world’s largest phosphate mining/processing operation in Aurora to the port at Morehead City. So important a role does the Intracoastal and its inlets play — PCS alone is estimated to contribute $800 million to the surrounding economy — that the state and some beach towns have been kicking in about $1.5 million a year for the Corps to expand dredging, a federal responsibility. Even with a boost from the economic-stimulus package — the North Carolina section gets about $4.4 million — this year’s federal budget for dredging it totals less than $5.7 million. Lobbyists figure $17 million is needed to deepen it to the standard 12 feet.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Federal appropriations depend largely on shipping volume, and Tar Heel watermen say one reason freight has declined is because large barges can no longer navigate shallow channels. The shipping figures don’t account for the 15,000 to 20,000 pleasure craft that the Coast Guard estimates cruise the waterway each year, nor do they include commercial and charter fishing boats. “North Carolina still has some of the most robust reaches of the entire Intracoastal Waterway,” Reynolds says. But how long that holds true is anyone’s guess.

Continental Shelf is a head boat that can carry as many as 50 anglers deep-sea fishing. Captain Dave Tilley berths it in Morehead City, 120 miles up the coast from his home in Carolina Beach, because it needs 7 feet of water to put to sea. “When Carolina inlet was routinely being dredged, I could work out of my back yard. These days, to feed my family and pay the bills, I need to travel far enough to bypass all the troublesome shallowing inlets.” That’s a 2½-hour drive.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway stretches 1,200 miles from Key West, Fla., to Norfolk, Va., but few segments are as awash in history as North Carolina’s or as economically important to their states. “The idea of sparing mercantile vessels and fishing boats the hazards of more perilous offshore passage outside in the Atlantic arose in Colonial times,” says historian Jim Leutze, chancellor emeritus of UNC Wilmington. “Ocean waters off the North Carolina coast are notorious for being among the hemisphere’s most treacherous. Not for nothing do mariners refer to this stretch as The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The sounds behind the barrier islands provided protected waters, entered by inlets created and sometimes erased by the violent storms that pummel the coast. But navigating the shallow, shoaling sounds amid the peninsulas of marshy mainland protruding into them was treacherous business. In the late 18th century, Virginians, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, pushed for a canal through the Dismal Swamp to connect Tidewater harbors to Tar Heel sounds. North Carolina authorized construction of its end in 1790. Other stretches included the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, completed in 1859, dug mostly by men and mules. This was part of the state’s larger transportation system, which included the rivers flowing from the interior. “It was also intended as a trade artery by which textile, forestry and tobacco production would be able to avail world export markets,” Leutze says.

In 1919, Congress created the Intracoastal Waterway. In North Carolina, the Corps of Engineers maintains it and six inlets south of Cape Lookout. During the Civil War, blockade runners eluded federal warships by darting into some of them, carrying cargo that made Wilmington the lifeline of the Confederacy. The passages still bedevil mariners, though they’re not Yankee naval officers but local captains such as Tilley, who caters to anglers willing to pay $90 each for deep-sea fishing. “Our shallow-draft inlets back home would force me to use craft too small to make a head-boat operation economically feasible. Morehead City gives me the necessary depth and client base, but I’d be lying if I said I dig driving 120 miles north just to get to my job.” Sport fishing, despite the recession, has held its own, though “demand has shifted dramatically toward less-expensive inshore charters,” says Carl Snow, who runs three Fish Witch boats out of Carolina Beach, typically charging $1,400 for a 12-hour Gulf Stream charter for six. “But offshore deep water is where the big boys spend the big bucks. The ability to work the inlets and get outside means everything to this industry.”

Difficulty reaching fishing grounds also has been one of many factors curtailing the state’s commercial catch. Dan Hooks, one of four commercial fishermen left in Carolina Beach, recently put his snapper-and-grouper boat up for sale. Fuel costs, slim margins and loss of the working waterfront to development are other factors driving him out of the business he has been in since 1982. “Ours is the worst inlet on the North Carolina coast,” he says. He hopes to stay on the water, if not as an owner perhaps as captain of someone else’s boat — someone with deeper pockets.

Don’t blame nature: The inlets and waterway aren’t shoaling any faster than in the past. “Inlets migrate like a dog’s tail wagging,” says Roger Bullock, Corps of Engineers chief of navigation in Wilmington. “I know the history on some of these inlets, and fisherman will tell you, ‘Oh, 30 years ago this inlet was going this way or that way, and I think it’s going back that way again.’” And nature is no clock-watcher. “It’s too treacherous to dredge at night, so when you’re working 12 hours a day and nature is working 24 hours a day, she’s covering a lot more acreage than you are.” When storms hit, they can reverse weeks of dredging in hours. Keeping coastal waterways and inlets open is a job that is never finished.

Rosemary Lynch is the Raleigh-based director of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, a lobbying group for commercial and recreational users from Florida to Virginia. Money from the stimulus plan — the full length from Florida to Virginia gets about $22.2 million — will bring much of the waterway up to standard temporarily, she says, but Congress doesn’t allocate enough to keep pace with nature. Small dredging barges, suitable for inlets, cost about $10,000 a day to operate, Bullock notes. Large dredges that can work in open ocean, such as at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, cost more than $1 million merely to set up. That is why the state, after considering buying a dredge or contracting the work out, opted for cost sharing. It was cheaper to pay the Corps of Engineers to do it.

“We’ve struggled with funding over the years,” Bullock says. Until about 2000, he says, federal allocations had held steady or increased through much of the waterway’s history. But political pressure shifted money to more heavily used waterways, especially in the Midwest and along the Mississippi. Along with escalating deficits and fierce competition for appropriations, this left the Intracoastal nearly high and dry. The Bush administration gave it low priority, budgeting less than $5 million in 2003 to maintain its entire length. Congress increased it to $12.6 million. In 2005, the administration budgeted less than $10.5 million — none for North Carolina’s portion. At the urging of Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Waterways Caucus, Congress upped the state’s share to $3 million.

That level of funding, waterway proponents argue, is just a drop in the bucket, especially when compared with what is spent on other modes of shipping and transportation. Dredging all of the waterway and its inlets in North Carolina to a minimally acceptable 9 feet would cost $40 million, says Smith, who works for Yonges Island, S.C.-based Stevens Towing Co. in Edenton. “It sounds like an enormous hunk of change, but comparably, 3½ miles of interstate highway would cost about the same.” In a roundabout way, he blames the death of Interstate Commerce Commission regulation during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. That set in motion a chain of events in which barges lost some of their price competitiveness with railroads and trucking. He also criticizes the federal formula for allocating money among waterways. His company, for example, could haul more tonnage if channels were deeper, but Congress won’t allocate more money to deepen them until tonnage figures are higher.

The Office of Management and Budget generally has made waterways with less than a billion ton-miles of freight annually — a ton-mile is a ton of cargo moved a mile — lowest priority for dredging money. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway’s average is about half that. Deepwater ports such as Wilmington and Morehead City get top priority, particularly when they’re strategically important. The Army’s Sunny Point shipping depot is on the Cape Fear below Wilmington. Despite their economic impact, commercial fishing vessels, cruise boats and recreational craft don’t figure into the formula. “Decision makers up in Washington acknowledge that the tonnage-shipped formula has been irrelevant and outdated for well over a decade,” says Harry Simmons, executive director of the Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association. “If changing the old cost-sharing formula were purely a business decision, it would be a done deal.”

Without a change in the formula, Corps of Engineers officials say their hands are tied. “Everyone recognizes the fact that barge traffic has practically vanished,” Bullock says, “but until the funding formula is amended, we can only stand by at the ready.” He sympathizes with economic developers and tourism promoters but says they should — as federal budget makers must — look at the bigger picture. “A lot of attention goes to the deep channels and ports such as Wilmington and Morehead City. But where we might move 10 million tons of cargo a year through Wilmington, you’ve got places in Louisiana that are moving 225 million tons. When you start looking at an 8-foot coastal inlet with a dozen fishing vessels and charter boats going out every day — while it’s wonderful for the economy of North Carolina — it’s difficult to get the dredging budget for them.”

To which Simmons replies, “There’s a serious disconnect going on between what we know and what we’re doing.” He cites the recent study on the economic impact of the inlets and waterways in North Carolina. “We have evolved into a vast, prosperous playground for America’s emergent leisure class and baby-boomer retiree. Recreational boating, charter and commercial fishing, boat building, seafood processing, tourism, marinas and real-estate enterprise of every description generate nearly $5 billion dollars annually in sales and over 62,000 jobs.”

Politicians and officials controlling the purse strings need to see the waterway in a different light, he says. “The federal government built this incredible maritime mega structure for moving freight without knowing or ever dreaming that, coincidentally, the foundation was being laid for prosperity much more grand. The newer, tourist economies have integrated into the existing Intracoastal master plan seamlessly.” Now many waterway users are trying to advance that perspective.

By 2005, shoaling in Bogue Inlet had become so severe that Stan Jarusinski, a charter-boat captain out of Swansboro, began writing letters to the editor of his local newspaper. He was soon invited to speak to civic groups and, without intending to, became an activist for the waterway and catalyst for a rally, held at the fire station, that demanded better maintenance. “The parking lot and streets overflowed with pickups and SUVs,” he recalls. “Cops showed up to direct traffic.”

Soon a coalition of groups coalesced around a Brunswick County beach-preservation organization, creating the North Carolina Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association. “When all stakeholders speak with one, unified voice, all our interests are strengthened,” says Simmons, its director. How loud will that voice have to be to get heard? A growing view among those interests is one that’s bigger than North Carolina’s alone.

John Sutherland administers grants for the state Division of Water Resources, which since fiscal year 2006 has chipped in about $750,000 of state money annually to augment Corps of Engineers dredging. Several beach towns and communities have contributed roughly the same. He advocates a regional approach. “If navigation south of Calabash or north of Corolla grows worse, then we have an intercoastal waterway rather than an intracoastal waterway. If the entire infrastructure isn’t seamless, the whole point of it is lost.” Organizations such as the Intracoastal Waterway Association also are promoting regionalism, and politicians such as McIntyre — Lynch, the lobbyist, praises his efforts to arm-twist congressional colleagues into allocating more money for dredging — are forming caucuses and alliances. But Sutherland warns, “This is not just about the parochial interests of any one region or entity. The economic well-being of North Carolina as a whole is at stake if our coastal waterways grow critically less navigable.”

Others hope global circumstances spark more congressional funding. Though barge tugs and towboats are thirsty — quaffing 1,400 gallons or more of diesel fuel a day — they are still more efficient than trucks at moving heavy cargo. With interstate highways overburdened, rising energy costs could renew interest in waterborne freight, including new ideas such as piggybacking truck trailers on barges similar to the way they are transported on trains.

Simmons believes a united front, tying commercial, recreational, tourism and other interests, will be the best approach. But he too warns of the perils of parochialism. “We would be wise to play down what is best for North Carolina and speak instead to what is best for the national interest. The U.S. taxpayer has invested tens of billions in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway over the past 80 years. The waterway essentially belongs to all Americans.”