The Rocks

Study legislation passed by state lawmakers in the waning hours of budget negotiations last month continues to draw questions and concerns regarding its true intention. 

Birthed from ideas originally contained in Senate Bill 160 that proposed the removal of a portion of the squash dam wall at Zeke’s Island, plans for a study to remove “The Rocks” was inserted into the Senate’s budget bill late in negotiations and is now state law.

Zeke’s Island and “The Rocks” are located across the Cape Fear River about five miles upstream from Southport.

The idea, and SB 160, originally surfaced in April from Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), former chairman of the N.C. State Ports Authority Board of Directors.

The dam, which was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1871 and 1891, is still seen as a high engineering achievement 140 years later, with the corps’ Wilmington District naming it in 1975 as the most important project in its history.

Since Sen. Lee’s bill was first introduced, 10 regional municipalities and one association have passed resolutions in opposition to the rocks being removed. The Village of Bald Head Island, Southport, Caswell Beach, Oak Island, St. James, Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Carolina Beach, Boiling Spring Lakes, Holden Beach and the North Carolina Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association (NCBIWA) are on record opposing the removal of what’s also referred to as New Inlet Dam.

Opponents of the study say the shorelines and coastal environments around Southport and Bald Head Island would be affected the most. 

“Bald Head Association is very concerned about the push by our state lawmakers to remove the New Inlet Dam at Zeke’s Island,” association director Carrie Moffett said. “A report written by Bald Head Island’s long-time coastal engineer, Erik Olsen, who has decades of experience with coastal North Carolina, predicted that serious negative consequences will result from the dam being removed. His analysis has been validated by other noted coastal engineers.”

Officials in Southport believe the dam is crucial in regulating and maintaining the current depths of the Cape Fear River. 

“If the rocks at Zeke’s Island are removed and a new inlet is introduced for navigation, coastal engineers have indicated that Southport will be at greater risk for flooding due to storm surges associated with major storm events,” mayor pro-tem Mary Ellen Poole said. “This could certainly result in detrimental effects on our infrastructure, increases in erosion and possibly increase in flood insurance for some of our citizens. I’m concerned about these negative impacts on our waterfront town, for our waterfront is our crown jewel.”

The new wording that was approved last month ultimately calls instead for a study and conversations with federal groups to uncover what effects taking the dam out with have on the river’s ecology. 

And while several local elected officials have stated that they view removal of the rocks as a way to eventually re-open New Inlet and make way for a North Carolina international port, Lee’s colleague Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Southport), said those statements are hearsay and based on misinformation. 

“I think those statements lack all of the facts,” Rabon said. “That (bringing back the ‘megaport’) is not on anybody’s playbook. This was not a clandestine operation. I think what folks should be more concerned about is the effect that 400-foot wind towers would have should they be installed off the coast of North Carolina.”

During a recent semi-annual meeting of the Zeke’s Island Reserve Local Advisory Committee, held earlier this month at offices at Fort Fisher’s Recreation Area, those members expressed concern regarding the origin and ultimate intent of the proposal. 

(For more on this story, see this week's edition of The State Port Pilot.)