HERNANDO BEACH — With two mechanical dredgers now operating at either end of the Hernando Beach Channel, county officials warned on Friday that boaters on the waterway could face delays of up to an hour as they try to pass the heavy machinery.
The dredging is being done from large barges, two of which hold massive mechanical excavators. The state permit for the work also requires use of curtains around the dredge sites to corral the resulting turbidity.
"This arrangement may take up the entire width of the channel, possibly limiting passage of certain vessels during low tides,'' according to the county's weekly dredge update.
Two other barges are moving the excavated rock to land and another barge is used to maneuver the turbidity curtains. In the coming weeks, a sixth barge will also be added to the operation.
The county has enacted a no-wake zone within 300 feet of the dredge equipment and warned boaters to use "extreme caution" around the work zone.
The county said people operating large boats who need to pass the barges should radio using Channel 68 and use the call sign "Konga West Dredge.'' Boaters should radio ahead so the dredge operators have time to clear the yellow curtain and barges to allow the boat to pass.
Local commercial fisherman don't see much problem with the potential delays in traveling the channel, said Kathy Birren, owner of Hernando Beach Seafood and several commercial fishing boats.
"The general consensus of the commercial fishermen is that whatever it takes, however it's done, they just want the dredge,'' she said. "It's very important to their industry.''
Local shrimpers and the crabbers that begin their work in October tend to come in and out of the channel at times the dredge is not operating, Birren said.
"They don't consider it an inconvenience,'' she said. "They just want it done. It needed to be done a long time ago and we're all just glad that they're doing it.''
Contractor BCPeabody had fallen behind schedule in the project to widen, deepen, lengthen and straighten the 3-mile channel. A hydraulic dredge, which had been sucking up sand and silt and filtering it in huge holding ponds, was not accomplishing what had been hoped for and the contractor opted to switch to a fully-mechanical operation.
The pipe from the hydraulic dredge has been removed from the channel and the pipe remaining at Tarpon Canal will be removed next week. The holding ponds at the county's old wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard are no longer a part of the operation but the site is still in use for staging the dredge operation.
The contractor has a Dec. 31 deadline for completion. Next week the county plans to develop a detailed time schedule of the work that remains.
Those who have questions about the dredge or how it may impact use of the channel can attend a public meeting slated for 4 p.m. on Monday at the Coast Guard Auxiliary on Calienta Street. County officials and representatives of BCPeabody will be on hand to discuss the project.
Transportation services director Susan Goebel will update county commissioners on the dredge during their regular Tuesday meeting.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.