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What is the Intracoastal Waterway?

Gareth McGrath

The Intracoastal Waterway, or “ICW” as you’ll hear some old salts refer to it, is a term you’re likely to hear a lot when visiting or living in Southeastern North Carolina. It’s a 3,000-mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are man-made canals. Parts of the waterway that stretch from Virginia to Florida, including the section between Beaufort and the Cape Fear River, are natural. But many sections were dug out during the 1920s and 30s as both a jobs-development project during the Great Depression and to provide a safe passage for shipping that was decimated by German U-boats during World War I.

Snows Cut, living up to its name, was slashed through the soft sandhills of southern New Hanover County. And much of the waterway in Brunswick County was dug in the 1930s to connect existing inlets and rivers.

Although originally built to serve commerce, the waterway in North Carolina today is largely the domain of recreational boaters. That has led to problems in securing funds to maintain it because the federal government doles out dredging dollars based on commercial traffic. That, in turn, has led to serious shoaling in many places, especially where inlets cross the waterway.

Public access to the waterway is also a hot-button issue as population growth and development pressures along its banks mean more people squeezed into ever-more-crowded boat ramps and other public accesses. But North Carolina’s stretch of the Intracoastal is generally in much better shape than the waterway sections in Georgia and South Carolina.

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