The Army Corps of Engineers has determined that Fire Island Inlet, already dangerously shallow, accumulated even more sand from superstorm Sandy.
An agency sonar survey conducted last month found that the depth of the navigation channel, which is supposed to be 14 feet at low tide, has dropped to as little as 3.7 feet. In some places in the inlet outside the marked channel, there are now sandbars above the water level where there previously was water.
The corps has not determined the cost of the dredging project, said Randall Hintz, chief of the Operations Support Branch at the New York office, but the funding will come from the $50.5-billion Sandy relief bill passed by Congress last week.
Before last Monday's Senate vote, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had reached agreement with the corps that Fire Island would be the first inlet in the region to be dredged with funds from the Sandy bill.
"The Army Corps has confirmed what we've known all along -- that Fire Island inlet is dangerously shallow and needs to be dredged," Schumer said. "Fortunately, in a win for both boaters and drivers, the Sandy relief bill provides the necessary funds to repair the inlet and make it passable, with the dredged sand being used to protect Ocean Parkway."
To expedite the project, Hintz said, "we're doing as much of the groundwork as we can do" before getting authorization from Congress and corps officials in Washington to proceed.
The corps will work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to try to do the project this winter before endangered piping plovers begin to nest on the beaches in the spring.
Hintz said that after a week of surveying by a three-man crew on a 31-foot, sonar-equipped aluminum boat, his staff determined that about 170,000 cubic yards of sand had accumulated since a previous survey in March.
"It's hard to say" how much of that was deposited by Sandy, but some of it surely was, Hintz said.
Since March, the sand "moved around," he said. "There are some places that gained four feet of depth as sand was taken away and other parts of the channel where four feet of sand was accumulated."
The survey showed one area where there was 8.2 feet of water in March that now is only 3.7 feet deep at low tide.
Because of the additional shoaling and shifting of sand, Hintz said there is no way to transit the marked channel without running aground, so mariners now have to go outside the channel to get in and out of the inlet.
"If they were able to push up the date for dredging, that would be great news for everybody," said Coast Guard Lt. Ben Duarte, chief of the Sector Long Island Sound Waterways Management Division. His agency declared the inlet unsafe for boating traffic earlier in the year.
"The depth can be different at Fire Island from week to week, and we're out there monitoring it, sometimes daily," Duarte said. He added that unless the situation changes dramatically, the Coast Guard will wait for the dredging before deciding if the buoys marking the channel need to be realigned.
Nick Manzari, captain of the fishing boats Island Princess and Bay Princess, based at Captree State Park, said, "It seems like the inlet got quite a bit shallower after Sandy. If they can do some dredging, it would be a positive thing. It was pretty bad before the storm, and there were no plans for anybody to do anything to help us" until after Sandy.
The corps will survey the rest of Long Island South Shore inlets, beginning with Jones Inlet, in the next few months, Hintz said. That work is usually done in the spring, but because of Sandy it is being moved up.