Officials, mariners concerned over Fire Island dredgingby Bill Bleyer
September 2, 2009
Long Island officials and mariners have joined the Coast Guard in raising an alarm because Fire Island Inlet is filling with sand faster than usual and no federal money has been allocated for dredging it this winter.
The inlet is usually dredged every other year. The last project in 2007 cost $9.3 million, said Randall Hintz, chief of the Operations Support Branch for the Army Corps of Engineers' New York District.
"We have money - $150,000 - to do the engineering and are preparing plans" for inlet dredging over the winter, he said. But "we don't have the dredging money yet. If money were to become available, we could do it."
The shoaling problem - when a body of water fills with sand - was brought to the attention of elected officials by boat captain Paul Risi of the Captree Boatmen's Association, which represents 26 commercial vessels, at a meeting on dredging projects last month organized by Assemb. Ginny Fields (D-Oakdale). After the meeting, Fields and State Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) reached out to the congressional delegation for help.
"The shoaling of the Fire Island Inlet has accelerated at a very rapid pace, and it is predicted that by October of this year, the inlet may not be navigable for most vessels," Johnson wrote to Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Both said they are working to make sure inlet dredging funds are in the 2010 federal budget. "The dredging of Fire Island Inlet is critical to the safety and economic vitality of Long Island's fishermen and boaters, as well as the rescue duties of the United States Coast Guard," Schumer said.
Reps. Steve Israel, Tim Bishop and Peter King are trying to arrange funding in the House.
Hintz and Risi said the inlet is filling in more rapidly than usual because the company hired by the corps two years ago ran out of time on its permit and couldn't follow the usual procedure of digging a deposit area to the east of the channel so that the sand that naturally flows along the shoreline would be captured there.
The result, Risi said, is "boats are running aground." Without dredging this winter, he added, "one good storm like we had the past two weekends could move enough sand to make the inlet impassable."
In June, Capt. Daniel Ronan, commander of Coast Guard Group Long Island Sound, wrote the corps that "the junction between the State Boat Channel and Fire Island Inlet . . . has narrowed to the point that commercial vessels have been forced to coordinate transits to avoid collisions. . . . A greater concern is the degradation in our ability to perform rescue operations" should the channel become impassable.
Ronald Foley, regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said that the agency wants the dredging to proceed to protect the jobs and recreational opportunities provided by the "the largest fishing fleet in New York sailing out of Captree."
The agency also wants sand dredged from the channel deposited at the Robert Moses Field 5 beach, which was heavily eroded last winter as well as in the two recent big storms.
Local officials and mariners are also voicing concern because the State Boat Channel adjacent to the inlet has been shoaling badly and dredging there seems even less likely.
While Foley, Ricci and others would like to have the State Boat Channel near Captree dredged at the same time, Hintz said it could be a problem because there are no permits for that work and it would require smaller dredges than the inlet work.