The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has unveiled the early phase of a federal project that, if approved, would deepen the Cape Fear River shipping channel by about five feet to an average depth of at least 47 feet.
Leaders from parts of Caswell Beach and Bald Head Island are wary about the idea and concerned that it could increase shore erosion. Conversely, Oak Island Town Manager David Kelly said the work could provide sand for some of the 9.5 miles of the town’s ocean beach.
Corps officials walked municipal leaders through key points of the project last Thursday at a meeting in Wilmington. The N.C. State Ports Authority is paying for the study and planning under section 203 of the Water Resources Development Act.
The Ports Authority and Corps say that existing channel conditions cannot accommodate newer, larger container ships. They note that trans-oceanic ships built today are three times larger than those constructed in 1995. A deeper channel is needed for the Port of Wilmington to remain competitive, the report states.
The Corps has pledged to consider a wide variety of alternatives, including non-structural options, such as using the tides to float larger vessels. Dredging the channel, however, is the focus of the ongoing 203 study.
Bald Head Island Village Manager Chris McCall said local officials saw the effects of the most recent channel dredging and realignment, and it included significant erosion along South Beach.
“We want to be sure if this does happen that there’s some mitigation and funds for sand to go back on the beach,” McCall said. The Village sued the Corps several years ago over the issue but lost in court.
Even so, the Corps has not followed its own sand management plan and, because of funding shortages, has delayed the placement of sand on area beaches beyond the agreed-upon time frame, McCall said.
Lawyers for the Village, in a letter to the Corps and Ports Authority, decried the lack of public input on the project and asked the Ports Authority to withdraw its request and start over. “The (Ports Authority) report was prepared essentially behind closed doors, without public input,” wrote William P.H. Cary and Joseph A. Ponzi of the Brooks Pierce law firm.
The attorneys wrote that the Village has had to spend more than $47-million for sand renourishment, groin tubes, the rock terminal groin and other measures to combat erosion blamed by its engineer on the shipping channel.
They also stated that the way the Ports Authority has pursued the project does not satisfy or even attempt to satisfy requirements for public participation. They have asked for a “full, fair and transparent process as required by federal law.”
The draft report is available on the Wilmington District Corps website under “missions,” then “navigation” then “dredging” and “Wilmington Harbor” 203 study.
The Corps will accept public comment on the proposal through October 12 at WHNIP203@usace.army.mil.