Rock wall removal could cause shoaling in shipping channel, some say

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A rock wall that has protected the Cape Fear River channel from shoaling for more than a century could be removed if a bill sponsored by state Sen. Michael Lee passes the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 160 contains a variety of provisions to fund maintenance and dredging of inlets and navigation channels, but it also would remove a massive dam known as The Rocks, which facilitated the closing of a rapidly migrating inlet that sent silt and sand into the main navigation channel.

Lee, one of three sponsors, said he, Sen. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County and Sen. Harry Brown of Onslow County were touring the coast when Rabon remarked it could be beneficial to allow New Inlet to reopen to provide another access to the ocean.

Removing the wall also would restore a more natural flow, resulting in better water quality, Lee said.

“If we can reopen the inlet, it could restore the ecosystem,” Lee said.

But some people familiar with the coastline and the channel say the idea could do more harm than good.

Carolina Beach Councilman Steve Shuttleworth brought up the proposal toward the end of last week’s meeting of the Wilmington-New Hanover Port, Waterway and Beach Commission. He said his council has been asked to oppose removal of the rock wall, but he doesn’t know enough about the potential impact to jump to conclusions.

“I am concerned that if they remove the wall, then Mother Nature will have access to what has been a closed inlet for years — and there is no way to know where it would open up,” said Layton Bedsole, executive director of the waterway and beach commission. If that should happen, shoaling could necessitate frequent dredging of the shipping channel, he said.

PWBC board Chairman Dennis Barbour said he lives near there and sees people who fish that area stranded when the tide comes in covering the rocks. Kure Beach Mayor Dean Lambeth agreed.

“Kure Beach goes out there three times a week to rescue [stranded]people,” he said.

The Rocks, south of Zeke’s Island near the tip of New Hanover County, is more than three miles long and at some points 37 feet high and 120 feet wide, said Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with N.C. Sea Grant.

Its purpose was to hold back sediment flowing in from an inlet that was opened by a hurricane in the 1800s.

“It’s the most complicated section of oceanfront in all of North Carolina,” Rogers said.

During the Civil War, the inlet was an asset to Confederate forces because blockade runners could navigate the shallow water near the opening, allowing them to get around Union ships that blocked the main channel, he said. But after the war it impeded shipping up the channel.

Actually, several inlets have formed and closed over the years; most of the openings were attributed to hurricanes. The most recent closed in the 1990s, Rogers said.

In addition to the risk of shoaling in the river channel, removing the wall also could cause erosion on Bald Head Island’s East Beach.

The upside is removal of the wall could improve water quality by permitting more natural flushing of the channel, Barbour said. But he, too, is concerned that shoaling will return. If the bill passes, a scientific study will be required, he said.

Lee said passage of the bill will require a number of steps before any final action is taken. The wall is part of the Zeke’s Island Reserve, which is controlled by the state, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Estuarine Research Reserve hinting at the likelihood of exhaustive environmental and cost studies, he said.

The bill passed the Senate but has been in the House Rules Committee since May. Lee said he hasn’t heard recently about when it might move. But one function of the rules committee, he said, is that it is a place where bills go to die.

Nevertheless, Lee said he expects to see an increase in the movement of languishing legislation over the next couple of weeks as the House and Senate continue negotiations on a budget deal.

email tricia@luminanews.com

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