The Coast Guard is warning boaters to avoid Fire Island Inlet because accumulated sand has made the waterway dangerously shallow, with little likelihood of dredging to solve the problem for at least a year.
The buildup of sand has serious implications for thousands of recreational and commercial boaters who go through the inlet annually, especially the fishing and dive boats based at Captree State Park just north of the inlet at the western tip of Fire Island. It also could have an impact on the Coast Guard's Fire Island station, which is just inside the inlet.
"Severe shoaling has been reported to extend the entire width of Fire Island Inlet . . . with water depths as low as 4 feet at high tide and less than 1 foot at low water," the Coast Guard said in an advisory posted Wednesday. "Mariners are advised to seek alternate routes. . . . If Fire Island Inlet is transited, do so at high tide and proceed with extreme caution."
Capt. Nick Manzari, owner of the day-trip fishing boats Island Princess and Bay Princess based at Captree, said the inlet is "in desperate need of dredging. It's shoaling so bad that the buoys are up on the sand at low tide. We know where the deep water is, so we can get in and out. But there are times when it's impassable" during rough seas.
While Manzari's boats need 4 to 5 feet of water, he said "some of the deeper-draft vessels -- the draggers and the longliners -- draw 6 to 8 feet of water." He has seen them waiting offshore for the weather to improve before coming through the inlet.
Vessels that can't get in the inlet would have to head west to Jones Inlet or east to Shinnecock Inlet. Moriches Inlet, which is closer to Fire Island Inlet, has a shoaling problem so severe that the Coast Guard has declared it nonnavigable and does not place channel markers there.
While the sand accumulation usually worsens over time, Lt. Ben Duarte, chief of the Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound Waterways Management Division, said "a storm could pass through and the conditions could improve."
But otherwise, the only solution is dredging. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged 550,000 cubic yards of sand out of the inlet in 2008 and its schedule calls for the next project in 2014.
Corps spokesman Christopher Gardner said there is no money in this year's federal budget for dredging the inlet and none in the proposed 2013 budget. In the past, emergency funding for dredging has come from earmarks from members of the Senate and House, but Congress has eliminated earmarks.
A full-scale Fire Island project to deepen the channel to its authorized 14-foot depth would cost $30 million to $35 million to remove several million cubic yards of sand, Gardner said, and the state would have to provide some of the money.
Duarte, who issued the advisory, said his agency has asked the corps to look into expediting dredging and in the meantime to survey the inlet to find out where the deeper water is so the buoys can be moved to re-mark the channel.
"For years, we've urged the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize dredging Fire Island inlet, and today we see why that was so important," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Having to shut down the entire inlet because the water is too shallow hurts recreational and commercial boaters, as well as first responders."