CLEARWATER — The boat channel through Clearwater Pass, a much-used route to and from the Gulf of Mexico, is getting shallow from a buildup of sand swept in by the tides. In some spots, the water is only 5 feet deep.
A long-delayed dredging of the channel has finally begun. But now it's being hampered by technical difficulties.
A dredging vessel sent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got a few days of work done before it had mechanical problems with a propulsion unit.
Then a thousand-pound ducted propeller called a "Kort nozzle" became detached from the boat and sank to the bottom of the pass. The vessel has retreated to a shipyard in Tarpon Springs for repairs.
"This is a brand new vessel built in Louisiana. This is its first job, so they're working the bugs out, so to speak," said Clearwater harbormaster Bill Morris.
The dredging started on Aug. 6. At this point, it probably won't be done until mid-September.
"The dredging is only supposed to take 15 work days. I'd say they've gotten probably three to four days of dredging done," Morris said.
The channel was last dredged 10 years ago. These days, boaters braving the channel have dinged propellers, dragged keels and run aground.
The city has committed $1 million to dredge up to 70,000 cubic yards of sand from the channel. The muck will be dumped a couple of hundred yards northwest of Pier 60, where officials say it will continue to nourish north Clearwater Beach.
The project actually involves dredging two sections of channel. The so-called "cut" channel that hugs the eastern side of Clearwater Beach is used by boaters traveling from Clearwater Pass, around Clearwater Point to the Beach Marina.
The second channel takes boaters east from the pass out into the Intracoastal Waterway — a path that avoids the shoals of Clearwater Point but is longer and requires more gas.
Both of those sections will be dredged to a depth of 8 feet. Meanwhile, the channel west of the Clearwater Pass Bridge leading out into the Gulf of Mexico will be dredged until it's 10 feet deep.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local governments are responsible for the federal channel, but the city will pay the full cost. The corps told Clearwater that the dredging project would only find federal funding from congressional earmarks, now largely forbidden. The work is expected to cost about $750,000, but $1 million has been budgeted to cover cost overruns.
And what about that thousand-pound piece of equipment that came off the dredging vessel?
After it sank, it became a hazard to navigation, Morris said. A Beach Marina crew with a tugboat and a barge recovered it with the help of a local diver. They brought it to the Seminole Boat Ramp in Clearwater.
The corps already has a replacement part ready to go, but officials wanted the broken part back so they could see what failed.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.