Shoaling around the Vilano Boat Ramp exacerbated by Hurricane Matthew is creating a headache for boaters having trouble getting in and out of the water, especially around low tide. With the busiest time of the year for fishing and boating on the horizon, officials are looking for a viable fix (at a workable cost) for the county’s busiest ramp.
County officials say concerns have been raised by the public about the condition of the basin and channel at the ramp, which provides boaters direct access to the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean, specifically with a buildup of sand and silt that has occurred at the southeastern-most point within the designated navigable channel.
As written in a county memorandum sent to commissioners on March 6: “Due to the inundation of sand and silt from Hurricane Matthew and the constant changing of the shoal located due east of the channel, it is not navigable to larger vessels during low tide and does not allow for two-way traffic within the designated channel.”
Wil Smith, director of parks and recreation for the county, told The Record on Tuesday people are “not particularly happy” they’ve had to base their fishing and boating trips on being able to get in and out at high tide because the ramp is supposed to be accessible by most boats even at low tide.
“It’s less than ideal for your commercial fishermen, your fishing guides and anybody who wants to go out into the ocean in a big boat,” he said.
Commissioner Paul Waldron, at the commission’s Feb. 21 meeting, had expressed concerns about the potential economic impact of not addressing the shoaling in time for fishing and boating tournaments hosted in the area.
The need is not just economic or recreational, however.
There are also public safety concerns in the event a storm blows in and boats are trying to come in all at once, at a less than optimal time.
Smith said that scenario already came up about three weeks ago when about 20 boats were stuck out in the water and could not get back into the boat ramp to load up because a strong northwest wind had pushed the tide out and there were just six to eight inches of water in the channel. He said there’s supposed to be a minimum of five feet at low tide, then, with five- to six-foot tides, about 10 or 11 feet at high tide.
Smith said a dredge will likely be necessary with “maybe a foot or a foot and a half of water, at most, at low tide,” but to what extent is yet to be determined.
He said a hydrographic survey commissioned in February should be completed any day now and that the results would help determine how many cubic yards will have to come out — and at what cost. The cost for the survey is $2,400, with funding coming from the Florida Boaters Improvement Program (allocated within the Parks and Recreation budget for this year).
Meanwhile, the county’s just about tapped out. The project does not appear to be reimbursable, on a short timeline, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or at all through the $47 million in disaster relief monies the county stands to receive from the Community Development Block Grant, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and requires alignment with federal guidelines.
Officials say it could take eight months to two years to get help through FEMA with dredging, but that does not solve the problem for the summer that’s right around the corner.
Smith said once the scope and cost of the project is nailed down, they’re going to look within the existing budget to see if the cost is something that can be absorbed and, if necessary, go to the County Commission and ask for General Fund reserve dollars. If all else fails, the county could have to wait on FEMA.
County Administrator Michael Wanchick at the Feb. 21 meeting said the best the county could do was get a sense of scope of the problem and, from there, work out a cost.
He said it could be a minimum of $100,000 to dredge the affected area.
“In the real world, we’re running out of dollars to do some of these capital projects,” he said.
Smith said it’s too early to say what the cost is going to be, whether it’s $100,000, $300,000 or something else altogether.
“We just don’t know until that survey says, based on the findings, we have to take out 5,000 cubic yards or 7,000 cubic yards or 10,000 cubic yards,” he said.
Smith said the county actually maintains the channel and basin under Nationwide Permit #35, issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which allows the county to dredge as needed when shoaling and navigational hazards become an issue. Through the permit, the county can maintain the channel at a depth of 5 feet below mean low water.
Historically, the county has dredged the area once every three to five years. Smith said the last maintenance dredge was two or three years ago and about 5,700 cubic yards of spoil was removed.
He said the results of that survey will determine how much spoil will need to be removed this time around — likely via a mechanical dredge, rather than a hydraulic dredge — to restore the permitted depth of the designated channel and basin. According to the memo, spoil removal currently costs, on average, $32 to $37 per cubic yard. A bid would still need to be prepared and solicited to qualified companies and funding would require approval by the County Commission to complete the dredging project.
Smith said the area experiencing shoaling is far enough in from the beaches that sea turtle nesting season, which starts May 1, shouldn’t be a factor.
According to a project list provided by the county in January, at the beginning of the FEMA reimbursement process, the county had sustained an estimated $154,114 in damage to its boat ramps.
Usina Boat Ramp, next to Aunt Kate’s restaurant off Euclid Ave, and Riverdale Park Boat Ramp, off County Road 13 in Fruit Cove, also sustained some damage but mostly in the form or damaged or lost docks. Smith said the county will look for funding or wait on the FEMA process for those fixes as well.
Dredging at the Vilano ramp was already a priority project for next year but the storm has accelerated the need.
“We’re putting in for maintenance dredging annually and we’re able to hit high spots as needed,” Smith said. “That’s fiscal year 2018, but that doesn’t kick in until Oct. 1.”
What can be done in time for the summer rush is still up in the air.
“We just want to get it done in a timely matter while making sure we don’t fall outside of the FEMA guidelines where we can get reimbursed,” Smith said, adding he was expecting the hurricane recovery process, as a whole, to be a long road.