05/23/2012 - CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — Local, state and federal officials met with commercial fishermen here on the small island May 8 to discuss the best way to keep the channel and harbor open and safe for all vessel traffic that uses the waterway.
Hosted by the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Chincoteague navigation partnership brings together multiple interested parties to hear concerns as well as discuss current funding and upcoming dredge activities.
With current funding dwindling for shallow draft projects nationwide, officials said the channel is still receiving cash – although in small amounts and only enough to complete just-in-time dredging – to keep the channel open.
"Out of 65 shallow draft projects alone in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chincoteague is only once one of three that continues to see funding, the others are Rudee and Lynnhaven inlets in Virginia Beach," said MikeAnderson, a Norfolk District supervisory civil engineer.
Because of current budget shortfalls, the Corps is taking a hard look at its current operations and looking for any cost cutting measures that won't compromise safety or the main mission.
"In our changing budget climate, we're using different folks to find solutions -- not just our operations branch personnel," said Mike Darrow, chief of the Norfolk District's water resources division.
One such solution is to realign the channel, which would bring boats farther away from a consistent problem area Corps dredges have addressed in recent years.
Kristen Mazur, a project manager with the Corps of Engineers, said such a move will have two outcomes.
"An adjustment to the channel will mean we will take boaters away from an area that continues to have a shifting shoal as well as save money and time from having to continually go back and dredge the same area over and over," Mazur said.
Commercial fisherman, along with town representatives, presented new economic data at the meeting, which showed an increase in the amount of commercial vessels using the channel to offload seafood to market.
"With this knowledge and buy-in from stakeholders, we are working with the Coast Guard to realign portions of the channel to optimize the limited funds and dredges," Mazur said.
Another adopted proposal is to maximize the time the Corps Dredge Currituck remains on-site.
"We currently have the dredge come during very short periods of time; what we are going to do in the future is have them come for at least 21 days to a month to do a very comprehensive dredge of the channel," Mazur said. "Our hope is that we reduce mobilization and de-mobilization costs as well as get more of the material out of the channel rather than only hitting a few hotspots."
Chincoteague Inlet's importance to the region is twofold; it serves as a small port for a bustling seafood industry, and a critical harbor of refuge for boaters seeking shelter during storms.
According to Wayne Merrit, the Chincoteague harbor master, the local fishing community has seen an uptick in the amount of fishing boats coming in for offload, bolstering the towns need to keep the waterway safe and open.
"With increased vessel traffic, comes increased tonnage, which says we are a thriving harbor and need to keep the inlet open to continue our growth," Merritt said.
Officials voiced their funding concerns and asked the Corps what could be done so their inlet can continue to be a priority when it comes to budget time.
Officials with the Corps offered a few points of advice to the crowd:
"You need to continue to keep us updated with the most current information as far as amounts of boats, types of boats as well as work together in chorus with each other to tell elected officials just how important the waterway is to you, the town, the region and the commonwealth economically," Mazur said, addressing the group.
The Chincoteague navigation partnership meets once a year, and according to Mazur, allows for a very productive forum to get things done.
"The meeting allowed us to get input from the users, stakeholders and sponsors of the project about the channel conditions, vessel usage, and needs for improvement." Mazur said. "I think the meeting went well and received positive comments from many of the attendees."