‘An accident waiting to happen’

Make some noise — at the end of the day, if people want to fight for state funding, they may need to get organized and start contacting their legislators. That includes Fenwick Island’s desire for better-maintained waterways.

Fenwick Island town hall had a full house at an Aug. 18 public workshop on dredging, featuring Tony Pratt of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC).

His message for people is “to not be quiet to the people who are elected. … Let them know your concerns, let them know how deep your concern is — not in a shrill, argumentative way, but in an intelligent way.”

Fenwick (like South Bethany) has its own tiny network of canals, which lead out to the Little Assawoman Bay. But the shallows of the bay are becoming too shallow for safe motor-boating. And people are looking for a solution.

It’s a safety issue, especially when motorboats must gun the engine to speed past the shallows. Usually, the lanes are only wide enough for one boat, which could lead to a scary game of chicken. And if people get stuck on the sandbar, they have to wait for the high tide.

“I’ve spent many a romantic evening on the sandbar, with my children bringing us pizza on the paddleboard,” said resident Natalie Magdeburger.

“This past summer has been one of the most frustrating and scary ever,” said Karin Lakin, who started a petition to encourage the Town and DNREC to pursue dredging.

Vacationers on paddleboards and in kayaks don’t necessarily understand how shallow the water is. Experienced boaters know the few lanes they need to use, but there are unmarked, so kayakers may not realize they’re in the line of fire.

“The petition was an intent to get this conversation started,” Lakin said. “Somebody is going to get hurt, and possibly somebody’s going to get killed, and that is not a reputation we ever want this community to have.”

“They’ve got to do something. They can’t bury their head in the sand,” Magdeburger said.

The issue always comes back to money.

“We never had revenue stream for waterways that, No. 1, gets the job done, and, No. 2, meets the demands of the State,” Pratt said. “There’s something like 20 federal channels in the state of Delaware that are authorized by [the Army Corps of Engineers]. They’re doing three.”

In 1997, DNREC told the Town that it was planning for a comprehensive study of inland waterways. Two decades later, that still hasn’t happened. Pratt said he couldn’t speak to that, but he apologized.

Pratt has worked with state beaches and waterways since 1980, leading to his current position as administrator of DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section. Personally, he said, he feels that “waterways are a part of our transportation infrastructure … a network of water roadways, if you will.” So perhaps Delaware should follow New Jersey’s example of maintaining waterways through the Department of Transportation, to prevent vessels from running aground.

The problem there is this is just one neighborhood. Pratt said he could be having the same discussion across the state, and the Little Assawoman Bay isn’t even on the priority list for the next few years.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would no longer give federal money to maintain the smaller waterways, Delaware in 2017 doubled its boating registration fees to make up for that loss of funding for dredging, channel marking and other maintenance.

“DNREC identified a need of probably $3 to $5 million per year to handle the backlog of work that the Army Corps handed to us,” but the new boat license fees will only raise about $1.3 million. “The registration fee is not getting the job done.”

Massey’s Ditch in Long Neck will be dredged first, followed by a handful of canals elsewhere.

The only reason Indian River Inlet got any attention recently, Pratt said, was because the State could use hurricane recovery money to rebuild the beaches there.

The State owns three dredges, but has to follow strict labor rules, which means “a dredge company can do in one day that we can do in one week,” said Pratt, adding that he dreams of gathering the little dredging projects together under one big contract to bid out, despite the expense.

If dredging material was used to build up an island, such as the now-underwater Seal Island, it could create habitat for wildlife, attracting more fish, birds and crabs.

“These things are not inexpensive, but … it’s the noble objective,” Pratt said.

State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-20) is hoping to meet with the governor and DNREC secretary soon. He encouraged citizens to start sending letters now, to make his job easier.

“It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be eloquent,” said Council Member Julie Lee. “They want to hear from every single one of you.”

Hocker also suggested contacting the U.S. Coast Guard and Sussex County Council.

“I hear many boaters say they are so disgusted they almost gave up boating,” said Hocker, which is something he said is a bad thing for big industry.

Tourism and real estate dollars rely heavily on out-of-state visitors, but no one knows exactly how much of an impact boating has. So one goal is to quantify that impact on the economy.

“We’re here because of the water,” Lakin said. “So if the water is not usable, quite frankly, we’ll go somewhere else.”

The public is allowed to mark canals, which some neighborhoods do — often using painted PVC pipe, which they dip in concrete and drive into the water. But that encourages more people to navigate and stir up the water there, which can lead to even more of a need for dredging.

The public could also come together to form a tax lagoon district. Hundreds of years ago, farmers were given the power to tax themselves for maintenance of tax ditches. Similarly, along small lagoons, property owners could tax themselves to pay for dredging.

“I could have just as many meetings at just as many communities [as here]. It’s systemic,” Pratt said. “We have so much to do. … This bay has to have a lot of voice. You’re starting that today.”

After the meeting, Mayor Gene Langan said the Town will start writing letters to state legislators about the problem. After all, he said, there’s no point in the Town dredging the neighborhood canals if the boats are just going to hit sand in the main channel.

“I was just glad we were finally doing something, too — get it out on the table so everyone knows it’s an issue,” Langan said.

To the north, Henlopen Acres and Lewes both have marinas that they’ve been dredging themselves. That’s an expensive option for Fenwick and South Bethany — towns that have no boating industry, just recreational access.