If plans to dredge the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and two other clogged waterways on Hilton Head Island aren't cleared by state and federal regulators soon, the project could be on hold until fall 2014.
That would mean another RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing passes with the harbor still too shallow to accommodate large yachts.
Project organizers hoped to receive the permits in January or February, said Jack Brinkley, president of the South Island Dredging Association, the group heading the project. SIDA applied for a permit Sept. 10 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston after nearly nine months of research and planning.
A volley of questions and responses ensued between the association and state and federal regulators -- including the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others -- according to Brinkley.
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"We've done everything we know how to do," Brinkley said. "We've responded to every question that has been made, and we feel like we've done that on a timely basis, but we can't control the timing, at the end of the day."
State and federal regulators stopped a 2003 effort to deepen the waterways after a contractor was accused of dumping most of the dredge spoil into Calibogue Sound rather than the approved off-shore site, according to regulators.
Sediment from the recently proposed project would be dumped on about 56 acres near Barrett Shoals, a popular site for anglers and a place where the Town of Hilton Head Island gathers sand for beach renourishment.
Regulators and environmental groups raised concerns during a public-comment period that ended in November that the spoil dumped in the sound could drift and harm water quality and marine life. They also proposed various alternative dredging methods and plans.
SIDA has been presenting the Army Corps and DHEC with responses to these concerns, Brinkley said.
The Harbour Town Yacht Basin, built to accommodate 100 boats, is only 4 1/2 to 5 feet deep now at an average low tide. Some of the floating docks are warped and twisted from resting on the sediment, requiring "several hundred thousand dollars" in repairs, said Sea Pines Resort president Steve Birdwell.
The shallow water limits when boats can travel in and out of the harbor, and it is too shallow altogether for some large vessels, which risk damage by sucking sediment into their engine-cooling, air conditioning and filtration systems.
The delays mean dredging might not start in November, as planned, according to Brinkley. There aren't many dredging companies with the equipment and experience to do the work, and most book their projects well ahead of time, he said. Contractors are unlikely to bid on the project until it receives the permits, Brinkley said.
Typically, regulators will only permit dredging in this region between November and the end of April. The project would require nearly a full season, which means a late start might not leave enough time for completion by next April, Brinkley said.
The permitting delay also puts the project at risk of competing with dredging jobs elsewhere and could drive up the project's cost, according to Kevin Miles, director of sales at Marcol Dredging in Charleston. He said his company is busiest between the end of September and the end of April.
"Whoever signs up first in the dredging season gets better prices than those who book it later, typically," Miles said. Projects with less lead time are charged more because transportation and accommodation rates are more expensive when booked with less notice, among other reasons.
"We like to schedule projects like that at least six months to a year in advance if possible," he said.
A DHEC spokeswoman declined this week to estimate when the permits might be granted.
Attempts to reach representatives from the Army Corps were unsuccessful.
The project calls for pumping about 300,000 cubic yards of silt, sand and clay from Harbour Town Yacht Basin, Baynard Cove Creek and Braddock Cove Creek, where South Beach Marina is located, to an underwater site near the mouth of Calibogue Sound.
Town Council voted unanimously in October to support the project on the condition that the plan passes environmental muster. SIDA will pay more than 90 percent of the project's cost -- the amount is uncertain now because of fluctuating fuel prices, Brinkley said. Sea Pines Resort will pay the rest.
Birdwell said he recalls a half-dozen, 100-foot-long yachts docked in the harbor during Heritage week in previous years. It was a spectacle for visitors, he said.
There will be no such large boats -- or views -- at this year's Heritage, Hilton Head Island's annual PGA Tour event, Birdwell said. "It's unfortunate."
Besides memorable views, the shallow waterway is also causing the marina to lose business.
Last week, the owner of a sport fishing boat about 50 feet long called the harbor asking for a place to dock and refuel, said Rob Bender, director of recreation and marine operations at Sea Pines Resort. But it was too close to low tide, so the boater was told to wait another three hours for higher tides.
Instead, he went to another yacht basin, Bender said.
Other boaters more familiar with the area already know to bypass the harbor, without having to call, he said. About half of the slips were empty Thursday morning.
Eighty-five of the marina's slips are managed by The Club Group. Uncertainty about dredging the harbor has caused slip sales to drop dramatically over the past four years, said Mark King, president and CEO of Club Group.
"When you've got the No. 1 destination point (on the island) being Harbour Town with big boats sitting in it, and then all of a sudden the nature of that asset changes to where it's very small boats, if no boats at all, you've lost a huge attraction to visitors and residents on the island," King said. "To me, that's the real story."
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.