Ocean City Today

Big drop in funding affects inlet maintenance dredging

Army Corps, National Park Service fights Assateague erosion, but aids harbor
By Brian Gilliland | Oct 09, 2017
Photo by: Josh Davis The Army Corps' dredge Murden

(Oct. 6, 2017) As an Army Corps of Engineers dredge returns this weekend for a three-day run to clear what it can from dangerous shoaling hotspots in the Ocean City Inlet, meetings continue between elected officials and agencies to find a more complete solution to the never-ending problem.

If the navigational conditions of the state’s only ocean-facing harbor seem worse than they did only five or six years ago, that’s because maintenance funding for the project has been halved since then.

“We used to get two 60-day visits per year, and we’re now seeing about two 30-day visits per year,” Chris Gardner, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, said.

The initial joint agreement between the corps and the National Park Service signed in 2001 to fund dredging was valued at $2.4 million with each entity paying half.

According to Debbie Darden, director of the Assateague Island National Seashore, her end of the deal is to mitigate the erosion at the north end of Assateague Island, which is causing it to roll westward faster than the rest of the barrier island. The benefits to Ocean City and its inlet are a happy coincidence.

Darden said since 2012-2013 the seashore receives $600,000 for dredging operations from Congress, and passes through to the Army Corps.

“It’s not the purpose of the project to keep the inlet open,” she said. “The corps figured out how to take sand from the channel to do that.”

As the funding reduced, the corps initially made up the difference, Gardner said.

“To oversimplify, we were audited and were found to be out of balance,” he said.

That situation could have jeopardized the spirit of the original agreement, and put it in danger.

“Someone up the chain said if the funding is not in balance, the deal ends,” he said. “So we started scaling back.”

The effects weren’t immediate, but have been long lasting. Commercial fishing vessels began to get stuck, catches were delayed and some fishermen abandoned Ocean City operations for more reliable harbors.

Since 2015, local elected officials Sen. Jim Mathias and Del. Mary Beth Carozza have each gathered various agencies and interests in order to determine a path forward.

The most recent actions have been to survey the inlet, again, to see if the channel itself should be moved to increase navigability.

Worcester County is developing an economic impact study of the inlet on the area to underscore how important it is to the local economy. However, commercial harbors in need of repair are ranked not by their relative importance, but by how much seafood they bring in. If local fishing businesses start to flee, the Ocean City Inlet may fall down farther on the list than it already is.

“We got some immediate action and got the wheels turning,” Mathias said of the meetings held during the summer. “The best news is the commercial fishermen and charter boat captains can feel like the government is working for them.”

Charter boat catches, Mathias said, may not be factored into the ranking system, but, he said, members of the group are looking into this situation.

“At its most basic, because there is less funding, we’re only dredging about half as much, but you can’t rely on an ecological project having an incidental benefit forever. For now, we’ll dredge as we are able based on the funding,” Gardner said.

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