In past years, federal funds were earmarked for the maintenance of inlets, but the federal ban on earmarks caused the funding for these U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to dry up - and that's just what would have happened if an alternative source of dredging funds hadn't been found.
Earlier this summer, officials in several coastal counties received an e-mail from North Carolina Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder explaining that the Corps would maintain shallow-draft inlets for $450,000 per inlet annually, and that the state was willing to pay half - contingent on local governments providing the other half.
"Don't make the mistake of thinking of this as just a fishing thing; it affects almost everyone to some degree, and especially every business in a big area around the inlet," said Dennis Barbour, a business owner, charter captain and former mayor of Carolina Beach.
The inlets involved were Lockwood Folly in Brunswick County, Carolina Beach Inlet in New Hanover County; Pender County's New Topsail Inlet and Bogue Inlet in Carteret County.
While each of the effected counties relies on the inlets for commercial and recreational fishing and tourism jobs, there was some initial reluctance to set the precedent, and even some concerns and reluctance from individual towns to provide their share. But after a couple of weeks of discussion, the funding is coming together and the inlets should be dredged again soon.
Carolina Beach Inlet was shoaling faster than the other inlets, and a very vocal group of fishermen and concerned business owners brought the problem to light. Their push to keep Carolina Beach Inlet open began with calls, letters and e-mails to local, state and federal officials, and they did not fall on deaf ears.
Several years ago, New Hanover County formed the Wilmington/New Hanover Port, Waterway and Beach Commission to keep area waterways open and beaches re-nourished, and county commissioners offered the commission a plan for communities and the county to share the $225,000 cost.
Initially, Kure Beach officials said they supported the plan but believed that legal issues would keep them from contributing financially. However, the city council met again and found a revenue stream that could be tapped to provide its share.
Barbour said the decision, for his community, was a no-brainer.
"This is not an expense we want or anticipated, but the overall health of the area - not just Carolina Beach - is affected by Carolina Beach Inlet, and it is imperative to keep it open and navigable," he said.
Barbour said Wilmington has levied an occupancy tax for years that was designated to be used for beach re-nourishment and stabilization, but that the money was diverted several years ago to help build the Wilmington Convention Center. With that building up and running, Barbour said the money should be earmarked for its original designation and should be enough to fund the annual maintenance of the inlets and waterways.
Brunswick County Commissioners voted Aug. 15 to provide half of the funds needed to match the state contribution for Lockwood Folly Inlet dredging costs. The towns of Oak Island and Holden Beach had already approved providing 25 percent each.
Oak Island Mayor Betty Wallace told commissioners that not dredging the inlet would negatively impact the entire area.
"One of the reasons we moved to this area is because of the great fishing," Wallace said. "If that inlet is not navigable, we're going to have to go up to the Cape Fear River or down to the Little River."
Local officials estimated the cost of dredging at approximately $10,000 per day, with the total package buying about 45 days of dredging.
The town of Topsail Beach spearheaded a drive to raise local matching money to dredge New Topsail Inlet. The town is contributing $50,000, with Surf City and Pender County committing $25,000 each. Topsail Beach officials hoped this would cover their half of the dredging cost, but they're left with finding another $25,000 to meet their half of the cost of maintaining the inlet through June 2012.
The town of Emerald Isle is spearheading an effort to secure funding for dredging for the Bogue Inlet connecting channel. Emerald Isle commissioners charged town manager Frank Rush with approaching and coordinating local governments in Carteret and Onslow counties to submit a cost-sharing proposal to the state.
The intent is to have a plan similar to one made in 2006 when there was no federal funding provided for dredging of the connecting channel. Their proposal is for $200,000 that would be split between the state, Carteret County, Onslow County, Emerald Isle, Swansboro, Cape Carteret, Cedar Point, Bogue and Peletier.
Capt. Lee Manning, who runs the Nancy-Lee Fishing Center on NC 24 between Swansboro and Cedar Point, said the plan is critical.
"We are fast approaching the time when the inlet needs to be dredged," Manning said. "Our largest boat drafts about 5 feet of water, and we are beginning to have an issue is between buoys 3 and 5 on extreme lunar low tides. We have been shifting departing and returning times when this occurs so as not to have to use the inlet when the tide is the lowest."
He said there also is a need to correct another issue with the channel.
"We have another issue in Bogue Inlet, and that is a buoy is missing," Manning said. "This makes it appear the channel runs across a shoal, and when there is much swell it is dangerous. Boaters follow the markers, and that sometime gets them in trouble.
"I have reported this to the (U.S.) Coast Guard several times, and have been told the buoy tender can't get in there and it will be replaced once the inlet is dredged," Manning said. "That makes no sense; it is dangerous now. If this was a highway intersection and a stop sign was missing, I bet they wouldn't wait until it was repaved to replace the stop sign. That missing buoy is just as important, maybe even more so, in Bogue Inlet."
A spokesman for the Corps said a dredge has been placed in standby mode, and its crew assigned to various other projects. According to the Corps' dredging schedule that was updated Aug. 16, the dredge's crew could be reassembled and dredging could begin within four to six weeks of all funding being secured.