Wrightsville’s delayed coastal storm damage reduction project could be completed early.
“We’re trying hard to make sure we finish before the end of the month. We’d like to be off the beach before Memorial Day weekend,” said Bob Keistler, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager, during a May 8 phone interview.
Keistler said the corps originally expected the project to wrap up in April, but the arrival of contractor Weeks Marine was delayed due to unusually high demand for renourishment projects.
The E.W. Ellefsen dredge arrived on Wrightsville Beach April 13 and the crew started pumping sand April 23, moving south to north. The last street end for the project is Sand Dollar Lane.
Keistler said the project typically takes four to six weeks, estimating about a quarter of the job is complete. A booster pump became available on May 1, helping the crew to work faster.
“[The pump] increases the horsepower of the dredge, which is allowing them to pump more sand per day, which gives us more chance to make the deadline,” Keistler said.
Town manager Tim Owens said it would be ideal if the project wrapped up by Memorial Day, because visitors and town officials will have to adjust plans if the crew is still working.
“Clearly Memorial Day weekend is one of our busier weekends. We would prefer it to be done, but we understand it’s out of their control because they’re going as fast as they can,” Owens said during a May 9 phone interview.
Since the project started late, an environmental extension was granted on April 24, allowing the crew to work during nesting season for sea turtles and birds.
The extension means long nights monitoring the beach for turtle activity for Nancy Fahey, Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project coordinator. Each night the entire pipeline is surveyed a minimum of three times at dusk and dawn in search of nesting turtle tracks.
Fahey said turtles could easily climb over pipes, raising two concerns. They might get lost or trapped on their way back to the ocean, or nests could be disturbed when the pipes are pulled up at the end of the project.
No nesting turtles have been sighted on Wrightsville yet. Fahey said the first nests were discovered during Memorial Day weekend in 2013, so an accelerated completion might prevent issues.
“That would be good news,” Fahey said during a May 8 phone interview. “They want to expedite this as much as we want them to, so hopefully they will be able to wrap it up sooner rather than later.”
Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina, said an early end to the project would probably not affect birds nesting on the island.
“The damage has already been done. They were dredging away the south spit as the birds were arriving there and beginning to think about nesting,” Addison said during a May 9 phone interview.
In the past three years, as many as 600 pairs of least terns and 150 pairs of black skimmers nested on Wrightsville’s south end, representing between eight and 20 percent of the state population for both birds.
Addison said 150 black skimmers pairs arrived on the island to nest this year but only a dozen pairs of least terns have been observed.
“There are smaller open areas among the dunes that the skimmers find acceptable that the least terns don’t. So there’s less least tern habitat,” Addison said. “We’re hopeful that the skimmers are able to maintain numbers and their success.”
Four pairs of oystercatchers are using the area, which is the same number as 2013.
Addison said if a nearby least tern colony fails, the birds might come to Wrightsville to try again.