Panel To Study Harbor Depth Concerns Requested

SNOW HILL — In response to an appeal for help over a recurring silting issue in the West Ocean City harbor, the Worcester County Commission has promised to lend full support to private efforts to reach out to state or federal agencies for more frequent dredging. However, the commissioners also made it clear that the county doesn’t have the resources to solve the problem on its own.

Silt build-up in the Ocean City Inlet is nothing new, but the associated obstacles are becoming worse than ever, according to John Martin of Martin Fish Company. Martin’s business relies on the harbor in West Ocean City, the only such harbor to the Atlantic in Maryland. It has been dredged regularly by the Army Corps of Engineers for years, but that might not be enough anymore. Build-up between buoys Red 12 and Green 11 across Martha’s Landing has become so bad that it is disrupting the comings and goings of ships.

“The Corps did dredge in October but it did not help,” Martin wrote in an email to the commission. “All of our boats hit there even on high tide, the bigger vessels cannot come in unless it is high tide, at low tide we all get stuck.”

It’s not a new problem but one that only keeps getting worse year after year. The sandbar that is the result of the silting threatens not only commercial fishing vessels but recreational boats as well. Keeping the harbor and the inlet clear and running smooth should be a priority, said Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of that fish that are being taken off the boats there are going to the restaurants in our town and county,” she reminded the commissioners. “So it’s just critical that we stay on top of this.”

The issue might be solved by increasing the depth of the normal dredging, according to Spencer Rowe, an environmental consultant. The standard dredge depth used by Army Corps is 10 feet, but Rowe suggested 14 feet be considered. However, any change to dredging would require more funding.

“If you go to 14 feet, yes, you need matching funds from the state, from the city, from the county,” he said. “We’re not asking for money at this point. We don’t know how much it’s going to cost or anything. We just think a task force or something needs to be formed to start exploring the idea.”

If the commission does decide that a partnership is viable, Rowe referenced a case in North Carolina where local governments worked with the state for continued dredging. It would have to be tweaked for Worcester but was at least a model for consideration.

However, Ed Tudor, director of Development Review and Permitting, warned the commission about following in North Carolina’s footsteps without knowing every angle.

“With regard to the North Carolina long-term agreement model referenced in the news article, I urge caution in pushing for such an agreement unless we are absolutely sure that federal funding for dredging of the inlet will no longer be forthcoming,” said Tudor.

Though wary of committing to anything that would jeopardize federal funding, the commission liked the idea of further research into why the harbor can’t stay clear. The buildup issues seem to be a persistent plague, noted Commission President Bud Church.

“It’s an ongoing problem that re-develops every 60 to 90 days,” he said.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley said the issue is a mysterious one.

“The problem is not the dredging, they’re doing the dredging. The problem is between the two buoys,” said Shockley. “Why does it keep happening again and again?”

It might be a question without an obvious answer. Martin guessed that swirling waters during tide changes could be responsible for the buildup but admitted that he couldn’t prove it. Tudor told the commission that Army Corps has thrown environmental experts and qualified scientists at similar mysteries in the past with inconclusive results. The state might be better suited to front any kind of task force since its expertise and pockets would be deeper, Tudor continued. In the meantime, Army Corps has been asked to return for further dredging.

“They are aware of the situation. They are coming back late January or early February with two dredges,” said John Tustin, director of Public Works.

Church told Martin, Rowe and Pursel that the commission is behind them in getting the state and federal governments involved but will want to exhaust every other option before having to tap county coffers.

“We will help you to the fullest extent. We have zero money. You’ve heard the concerns with money already,” he said. “We’ll write the letters, we’ll make phone calls, we’ll do whatever we can to assist you in getting your problem resolved.”

The county may never find out exactly why the regular dredging, which occurs twice per year, is less effective in the stretch between the two buoys.  It might be something that just needs extra attention and increased maintenance, said Commissioner Jim Bunting.