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Future of Intracoastal Waterway for Charleston, East Coast might depend on local dollars

Silver Hill plantation house (lower left) on the marsh along Jeremy Creek in McClellanville in September. Buy this photo

Piloting a larger boat is a crapshoot at lower tides in Breach Inlet, Jeremy Creek and the channel through Cape Romain.

The sands seem to reach up and snag - even though these spots are arterial Charleston County channels for the Intracoastal Waterway.

The once-vital, 3,000-mile, federal "marine highway" is filling in at vital links in the county, just like it is up and down the East Coast.

It's on the verge of collapse due to severe cutbacks and competition for federal funding for maintenance.

Enough is enough. Rutledge Leland wants to do something about it. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has laid it out for him.

"The Corps says there's no money to dredge; get something going from another source," he said. In other words, one of the grand federal public works projects of the 19th century is now pay-as-you-go.

Leland, McClellanville's mayor and owner of Carolina Seafoods on Jeremy Creek, is rounding up support and hopefully some funding from other mayors whose municipalities border the waterway, to go to County Council to ask for more money to dredge. The price tag could range from $5 million to $10 million, depending on just how much is done, according to Army Corps' Charleston district staffers.

Under a new federal "contribute funds agreement" spurred by the cutbacks, the Army Corps does the work if you foot the bill. Projects already are underway in North Carolina. In Florida, property owners along the waterway are taxed for dredging work, in a variation of the same thing.

What federal funds that are still out there for waterway maintenance get disbursed largely according to the tonnage-per-mile commercial use of a section. In South Carolina, the heavy tonnage simply goes in and out the harbors.

Yet, an estimated 14,000 recreational boaters per year use - or try to use - the waterway, along with countless shrimp boats, tugs and other commercial craft. The economic impact is huge. In McClellanville, nearly 30 commercial anglers and a marine contractor can't get in or out of Jeremy Creek toward low tide.

How bad has it gotten?

"Jeremy Creek has filled in all the way to the (ship) turn-around basin. The basin's not even usable," said McClellanville shrimper Richie Billington, who captains the 60-foot The Village Lady. "Anything lower than a half-tide, you're liable to pick up a cable or something (from the channel bottom) and that means repairs. Last year was really bad. The (shrimp) boats haven't been using it at all over the winter, so it might be worse now."

The waterway was supposed to be maintained at 12 feet deep at low tide. Breach Inlet is now less than five. Like Jeremy Creek, the waterway along Cape Romain nearly runs dry in spots.

Farther north, spots along waterway are bad enough that Georgetown County also is looking at finding its own funding.

Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers, who represents most of the affected municipalities, met earlier this year with Leland, county staffers and Army Corps representatives. When the municipalities have a presentation put together in the next month or two, he expects to bring it to council, along with a representative from the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, an advocacy group.

Schweers is looking at the potential use of accommodations tax or transportation sales tax money for the work. He thinks the $5-10 million price tag can be reduced by picking spots. Leland said once the dredging has caught back up, routine maintenance won't be so costly.

But somebody has to foot the bill.

"What I heard was, don't count on the federal government to come sweeping in anymore with a lot of money to get the dredging done, in the short term if ever," Schweers said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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