Three years after the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was dredged at volatile Breach Inlet, a federal contractor is dredging it again — using hurricane relief money.
That's why it looks like a road is being built on one of the marsh islands below the Isle of Palms connector. Two dredges are working and the dredge soils are getting dumped there.
The work is the start of a $9.4 million project re-digging stretches of the waterway from Charleston to Georgetown to the designated 12 feet depth at low tide.
Breach Inlet, which runs between Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms, was cleared in early 2016, but Hurricane Matthew hit later that year, silting back in much of the channel.
The inlets to be dredged are chronic trouble spots, subject to strong surge and strong tidal runs that move tons of sand and abruptly pile sandbars. Breach is notoriously fickle and one of the more heavily used stretched of the waterway.
"Breach is one of the critical areas we're dredging, one of the more dynamic areas we have on the waterway. At low tide it can be problematic," said Jeremy Johnson, an Army Corps of Engineers project manager.
Among other storm-damaged spots north of Charleston to be re-dug are Capers Inlet, Graham Creek, Awendaw Creek, Matthews Cut, South Santee, Four Mile Creek, North Santee, Little Crow Island, Minim Creek, the South Island Ferry and Jeremy Creek to McClellanville.
The Corps of Engineers funded the project out of money from congressional relief packages for storms before last year's Hurricane Florence. Federal relief money for Florence has been slow to arrive to places hit hard.
Dredging the waterway has been given new emphasis in recent years after the once vital, 3,000-mile-long commercial and recreational "water highway" lost the bulk of maintenance funding and was left to silt in.
The waterway as a whole is an economic engine for marinas and other small businesses serving an estimated 13,000 recreational boaters, according to the Boat Owners Association of the United States.
As recently as 2015, the problem inlet stretches were nearly choked off. Sands seemed to reach up to snag keels and hulls, boaters said. Most commercial shipping traffic had quit running it and pilots of larger recreational boat called it dangerous to run at lower tides.
The problems became so bad, a 44-foot trawler drawing less than 4 feet of water ran aground in 2013, violently flinging a Mount Pleasant woman across the cabin.
The work at Breach Inlet is expected to be completed by the end of June, and the entire project completed by the end of the year depending on weather, Army Corps program chief Brian Williams said.