Oak Island Town Council has approved a $17.5-million contract with Great Lakes Dredge and Dock to put sand along the western portions of the shore this winter.

Council also asked that managers see if the contractor could start on the west end of the beach, where some houses are currently threatened by erosion and protected mainly by giant sandbags.

The original work schedule has the contractor starting at just east of Middleton Avenue, where the 2020-2020 winter project ended, working to about 69th Place West. It will add 658,000 cubic yards of material to a shore badly battered by Hurricane Florence. The area is now protected only by an emergency dune that was created by pushing sand landward at low tide.

During high tide, most of the area currently has no dry sand beach.

The base contract will put sand from Jay Bird Shoals along about four miles of shoreline, and includes grading and the addition of post and rope dune crossovers for beach-goers. Planting native beach grasses or sea oats will be a separate contract, estimated at $300,000.

The town’s contribution to the project is $6.09-million, with the state picking up $3.8-million from two separate funds and the Federal Emergency Management Agency paying $7.54-million. Oak Island has agreed to a $10-million special obligation bond to pay most of the state and federal share. Finance Director David Hatten said at the special October 1 meeting that new rules require communities to pay disaster assistance costs up-front, but he expected reimbursement rapidly.

Work is scheduled to begin after the close of sea turtle nesting and hatching in November and continue until the end of March.

Council noted that the most recent project last winter, also conducted by Great Lakes, went past original deadlines and required two extensions by regulators and the addition of a second dredge at the 11th hour. An engineer for Moffatt & Nichol acknowledged the problem and said that the penalty for failure to meet deadlines had increased in the current contract from $4,000 to $5,000 a day. The finish date also allows some leeway, he said.

The project will employ one or more hopper dredges to pull sand from Jay Bird Shoals and, if necessary, the Central Reach, a partially mined cache of beach-quality sand off the west side of Oak Island that was used several years ago by neighboring Holden Beach.

Hopper dredges are like big shovels that grab the sand and move it near shore. The previous operation, like the usual Wilmington Harbor dredging every two years, employed a hydraulic cutter-head suction dredge, which basically sucks sand from the seabed and pipes a sand-water slurry up to several miles away.

Hopper dredges tend to have fewer breakdowns and delays, the engineer said.

The town also put two add-on projects for later consideration, depending on conditions, funding and the availability of sand once crews mobilize.

One add-on would put another 224,000 cubic yards of sand on the east end of the project at a cost of $3.35-million. The other alternative would add sand to the west end at around 54th Place West at a cost of $4-million. The town and contractor will negotiate these add-ons depending on several factors, including the availability of sand, funding and timing.

The bigger question facing town leaders is whether and how to engage in a long-term effort to protect all beachfront properties from storms expected every 10 or 25 years. This, engineers said, could cost roughly $40-million and would require $32-million worth of maintenance every six years.

Oak Island’s annual general fund government budget is less than $12-million.

These projects envision putting 1.7-million to 2.1-million cubic yards of sand along the beach. For comparison, a typical dump truck holds about 10 cubic yards.

The town has established municipal service districts for sand but the current assessment is zero. Council has agreed to address the matter again in January 2022, after the annual budget planning retreat.

The town has updated its beach renourishment web pages for the public. They are available at www.oakislandnc.com/sand.