Okaloosa County officials were scrambling for answers Thursday after word reached them that a dredge believed to be making its way to Destin’s East Pass had likely been diverted to river areas in northern Alabama and Tennessee.
By Thursday afternoon the county had enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz to find out what might have changed and why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had, according to Ketchel, “gone back on their word” to be in Destin by mid-March to complete dredging by April.
It was Wednesday, a day after finally nailing down a solid agreement to move forward with the badly needed dredging of the East Pass, that officials first got an inkling the Corps agreement to head to Destin might be in jeopardy, said Deputy County Administrator Greg Kisela.
“We started getting from them that there might be an issue, that they’re still working through it,” he said.
By Thursday morning, Ketchel said, it appeared nearly a foregone conclusion that the Corps had made up its mind to leave Okaloosa County in the lurch.
“Unless we muster enough political clout to make them change their mind, I think they’re headed up there,” she said.
The issue, it turned out, was that recent rains had created shoaling issues on the Tombigbee River in Alabama that was hindering barge traffic, and the Corps was considering moving the dredge destined for Destin 489 miles north from Mobile to deal with that, Kisela said.
“Three weeks ago we were over there and got permits and everything from them. We had a room full of Corps people and there was no indication, nothing that would lead you to believe that if we worked out our last details that that dredge would not be heading east,” Kisela said.
The Corps laid out its case for delaying the Destin project in a late afternoon memo to Gaetz.
“The dredge that was scheduled to do the East Pass work is the only dredge we currently have under contract that we can use to re-open the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The Tenn-Tom in the northern Mississippi section has experienced unusually high shoaling due the excessive amounts of rain over north Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia over the last several weeks. The waterway is completely blocked in one spot and we have to get it reopened for traffic as it effects multiple companies and industries. In fact, we are stopping the current job the dredge is working (Perdido Pass, Alabama) because of the critical need on the waterway," the memo said.
"Unfortunately, this Tenn-Tom work will use all the capacity we have under this contract, so we are putting together new contract packages for bidding now. It will take approximately 2/3 months for that process to complete. Depending on what type of equipment/bids we get, it would be three to four months at best before a dredge could mobilize for the East Pass work," it said.
The bad news for Okaloosa County comes after the last of a handful of hindrances to the county moving forward with the dredging project appeared to have been overcome Tuesday. That night the Board of County Commissioners agreed to a deal that would divert most of the sand pulled from the Pass westward, toward Okaloosa Island.
In return the officers of the Condo Alliance of Okaloosa Island temporarily set aside a legal challenge that had been preventing the Corps from dredging.
Kisela said he’s gotten used to obstacles being thrown in front of this particular project, but Thursday’s news “was not a hiccup we were expecting.”
This is the second time the Corps of Engineers had agreed to dredge the East Pass and then reneged on its commitment, Kisela said. The last time was only a year ago when the Corps dredging contractor, Mike Hooks LLC, finished a job at Norriego Point and was sent elsewhere rather than just south to the Destin Pass.
“It has started to feel like you’re seeing a really bad movie and now you’re forced to see it twice,” Kisela said. “Everything was a go and now you’re snatching that dredge from us. It’s just bad faith, and it’s frustrating.”
Though the Corps isn't expected to be available to dredge the East Pass before October, based on the memo to Gaetz, it does appear the county may be able to make a new bid for federal funds to pay for the project.
The East Pass is an important throughway to the Gulf of Mexico not only for the state’s largest fishing fleet at Destin Harbor, but also for the military. In April of 2018, Brigadier General Evan Dertien, the commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, wrote Gaetz to emphasize the importance of getting the Pass dredged.
“The heavy accumulation of sand is reaching the point where access through East Pass is becoming restricted and may become unsafe if the channel is not cleared,” the letter said. Vessels from Eglin Air Force Base frequently use the East Pass to support DoD test missions within the Eglin Gulf Range Complex … Removal of the heavy accumulation of sand within the Ebb Shoal will ensure our test mission is not impacted by further construction of the East Pass.”
County officials were forced Thursday to again begin exploring the idea of finding another contractor that could do the dredging. A plan hatched after the Condo Alliance filed its challenge would have used Tourist Development Department dollars generated through bed taxes to cover the cost, which was expected to be about twice the $1.5 million the Corps had appropriated to clean out the East Pass.