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An Outer Banks boating channel is impassable because of sand, officials say

052322 Oregon Inlet aerial dredge.jpg
Dare County
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An aerial view of the current channels that are dredged regularly by the Army Corps of Engineers. Officials are mapping a new channel this week because the existing one is down to 2-3 feet in places.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers are working to open a new boating channel at Oregon Inlet at North Carolina's Outer Banks because of shoaling on the existing route.

The two federal agencies warned Friday that the channel had become impassable because of shifting sands after a nor'easter two weeks ago.

"The inlet is very dynamic. Conditions do change based on weather, sea conditions, tidal conditions," said Todd Horton, of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Oregon Inlet, in particular, we survey this probably every seven to 10 days. "

What's different about this shoaling is how quickly it happened, with the storms, Horton said. "And it's also coming into a holiday weekend, where safety is a big concern," he said.

That's why both the Army Corps and Coast Guard issued alerts.

"The portion of the marked federal channel along the Marc Basnight Bridge between Buoys 17 and 21 is completely shoaled in … and unnavigable for most vessels," the corps said in a press release Friday.

052322 Oregon inlet survey.jpg
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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A survey by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week found the main channel around the bridge at Oregon Inlet was down to 2-3 feet in places. Dark red denotes less than 6 feet deep, bright red is 4-6 feet, and orange is 6-7 feet.

An Army Corps inspection last week found the channel around the Basnight Bridge was down to two to three feet deep in places — too shallow for dredging. That forced officials to look for a new channel, Coast Guard Lt. Greg Kennerly said.

"We're going to try and mark a new navigable channel alongside the Army Corps, to mark best water. A lot of the locals are already running it, even though it's unmarked," Kennerly said.

A spokesperson at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center told WFAE the channel changes have not affected their charter fishing business but might affect less experienced boaters who rely on channel markers.

"Our captains are fishing every day," she said.

The Army Corps plans to dredge the new route beginning Sunday. The Coast Guard said it should have new markers in place by Friday, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

In its own notice, the Coast Guard said it's not closing the waterway.

"Boaters choosing to transit through this channel do so at their own risk and should use extreme caution," the Coast Guard said. "The Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are currently coordinating and actively investigating other potential areas where a marked channel can be established to provide access to and from Oregon Inlet."

The nor'easter caused high seas and coastal flooding and contributed to the collapse of two houses into the ocean at Rodanthe.

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Updated: May 23, 2022 at 2:55 PM EDT
The Army Corps of Engineers has updated its dredging schedule for the new channel. Officials say they'll now start on Sunday, not Thursday.
David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.