Curious. This past spring, out of nowhere, New Hanover Sen Michael Lee filed SB 160, a bill to remove "The Rocks," from across the southern tip of the barrier islands at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. This bill passed the Senate but stalled out in the House. It was then inserted into the budget (HB 97).
What are The Rocks?
The Army Corps of Engineers says The Rocks are the “best ever” project conducted by its South Atlantic Division. The Rocks have been referred to as a dam, a giant breakwater, and a jetty, and were built to close up what was called New Inlet. New Inlet was a break in a barrier island at the mouth of the Cape Fear created by a big storm in 1761. (Yes, that’s actually 1761.) Today, we see this kind of inlet appear across Hatteras when a storm comes through and creates a new opening for water to move between the ocean and the sound.
This particular New Inlet, south of Fort Fisher, caused changes in the main shipping channel of the Cape Fear River. Sand and silt filtered in, changing the depth of the Cape Fear’s main shipping channel from 15 feet to 9 feet (remembered, 1700s), and could have completely closed Wilmington for use as a seaport. Some projects were designed to create a navigation channel between New Inlet and the port at Wilmington, but they were not successful. During the Civil War, blockade runners were able to use this as a quick entrance to Wilmington, but shoaling was a continual problem. Even confederate president, Jefferson Davis, realized that attempts to improve transit from New Inlet to Wilmington had done more harm than good. Something had to be done to protect Wilmington from loss of jobs and development, and work on The Rocks began in 1870.
By the time The Rocks were completed in 1891, the rock jetty extended over 2.5 miles, and rose all the way from the seabed to almost 2 feet above sea level. More than 122,000 cubic yards of stone had been dumped into ‘wooden mattresses’ and granite capstones were placed along the top. This effectively limited water flowing down the Cape Fear to a single ocean outlet at the river’s mouth. By 1901, the New Inlet was no longer seen on local navigation charts and the New Inlet’s contribution to silting of the Cape Fear River was stopped. With The Rocks in place, less frequent dredging allowed the port of Wilmington to grow and succeed.
The Rocks was created by an Act of Congress, with work done by the Corps of Engineer. I have been told that to have The Rocks removed would require another Act of Congress. I don't know if the NC Senate was aware of this when it passed Senator Lee's original bill. There would probably have to be an extensive environmental study. (And, as an engineering feat of some note, The Rocks could be included in the National Register of Historic Places. Removal could impact what remains of the Ft Fisher historic location as well as the resting place of the CSS Raleigh, which was sunk west of The Rock’s current location.)
Some of that may tell us why this bill stalled in the House. But it does not explain why it has been inserted into the budget.
The original bill, SB 160, called for the water between ocean and river to flow again:
SECTION 5.1.(b) The General Assembly finds that the Southern Component of the New Inlet Dam impedes the natural flow of water between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean that occurred prior to emplacement of the dam.
SECTION 5.1.(c) The General Assembly finds that it is necessary to remove the Southern Component of the New Inlet Dam in order to reestablish the natural hydrodynamic flow between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.
What prompted this sudden need for the free flow of water? What prompted Republicans to develop an interest in ‘reestablishing the ecosystem’ of anything at all?
The Wilmington Star News reported:
"Ecosystem restoration and protection of navigational safety" are cited in the legislation as key reasons for removing The Rocks, but local experts say such action could have negative effects such as increased shoaling in the Cape Fear River and erosion on Bald Head Island's East Beach. Local experts and officials also don't think the ecosystem restoration reason holds water.
"What I smell in this is that we're not being leveled with about what's really going on," said Larry Cahoon, a professor and oceanographer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. "Ecologically, I haven't heard an argument about what's broken that needs fixing…."
In the same report, Senator Lee commented:
It also remains unclear, he said, if an inlet could one day be used as a shipping channel for vessels trying to reach the Port of Wilmington. What the bill is not, he said, is the first step toward building a mega-port on 600 acres of land owned by the N.C. State Ports Authority in Southport.
Senator Lee has served on the NC Board of Transportation and as Chair of the NC Port Authority.
As other states deepen and widen their ports, NC must do the same just to keep the port of Wilmington competitive. Around $7 billion of goods a year are shipped through Wilmington. Ocean-going shipping vessels are getting bigger. The Cape Fear appears to have a straight path from the sea to Wilmington, but the navigational channel contains an S-curve that can be difficult for larger ships to negotiate. Dredged channels don’t stop at the river’s mouth, but in this case, continue miles out to sea-- 6 to more than 20 miles (according to different sources) . Dredging costs are tremendous, and were behind the push to build a new, super port at Southport. But the super port would be a multi-billion dollar project and, at least for now, the state has dropped this idea. In fact,
in the short session in 2010, NCGA used the budget bill to insert a prohibition against the use of State funds for the proposed container terminal.
Some are more skeptical and the question remains, just why does North Carolina need to re-open a inlet that has been closed up for more than a hundred years when we know from the past that it will result in significant silting in of the Cape Fear navigation channel?
Exactly who would benefit from removal of The Rocks? Would it benefit the Port of Wilmington? Would it benefit a few dredging firms?
When did Republicans start to care about the environment!