Digging Deeper

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Beth E. Concepcion shares CliffNotes on the debate surrounding the Savannah Harbor deepening. Photography by Beau Kester.

Few other issues in the area are so complicated, involve so many competing interests from nearby and afar, and divide people more than the issue of whether to deepen the Savannah Harbor from its current depth of 42 feet to anywhere from 45 to 48 feet.

Even the projected depth is a divisive issue.  Just one foot can make a huge difference in the number of cargo containers a ship can hold (100 more, to be exact).

So what’s the deal?

In a nutshell, the Georgia Ports Authority and others want the Savannah River to be dredged six more feet so that larger container ships can cruise up the river to the existing port infrastructure to be unloaded and loaded.  This means more traffic from international shippers using larger, more efficient ships, theoretically reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal says he expects the $652 million Savannah Harbor Expansion Project to have “powerful economic benefits to the nation and to Georgia.”

Deep Thoughts

It all started with Panama.  The Panama Canal Authority expects its expansion project—installing a third set of locks with a depth of 60 feet—to be completed in 2014.  The bigger ships this expansion will accommodate are going to need somewhere to go.  Hence the flurry of deepening projects along the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern Seaboard.  There’s talk of deepening the Port of Charleston to 50 feet.

Considering that, 48 feet doesn’t sound so deep.  All systems go, right?

Not so fast.

The Savannah River estuary is home to a delicate ecosystem.  Humans have been futzing with that balance for 200 years with some negative effects, including beach erosion on Tybee and loss of wetlands—the cradle of the ocean for shrimp, crab and other aquatic species.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the government entity tasked with studying and managing the Savannah project—has been dredging the Savannah River since the early 1800s.  When the river was approximately 17 feet deep, the estuary boasted 12,000 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands.  Today, only 4,000 acres remain.  At a depth of the Corps-supported 47 feet, the Corps anticipates a loss of approximately 223 more acres—a fact that worries Chuck Hayes, supervisory wildlife biologist for the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

“We would like to fill (the river) back in, but that’s not going to happen,” he says.

The wildlife refuge consists of nearly 30,000 acres of brackish marshes, tidal rivers, creeks and forests where a quarter million people visit annually to view nesting Least Terns, endangered wood storks and other federally watch-listed migratory birds.  Hayes said they already have a complex system of managing the “impoundments”—former rice fields dating back to the 1700s.  Maintaining the level of saltwater versus freshwater is key to managing these habitats.

Too much saltwater intrusion can also affect other species such as the shortnose sturgeon, American shad and striped bass because of depleted oxygen levels.  And one more thing: The dredging could affect our drinking water.

Fish Respirators

The Corps has a plan—one with a $292 million price tag.  According to a report released by the Corps in April, that’s the cost of “environmental mitigation” features such as acquiring and preserving 2,245 acres of freshwater (not salt) wetlands, re-routing water flow to reduce impact to marshes, restocking striped bass and then constructing a boat ramp so that people can fish for them, installing and operating Speece Cones to inject oxygen into the water (think respirators for fish) and monitoring all these modifications for 10 years.

Will the plan work?

Hayes says he hopes so but there’s no guarantee.  “We’re uncertain as to what’s going to happen with such a profound manipulation of the river.  Even the Corps is uncertain as to whether it will work,” he admits.  “Nothing like this has ever been modeled before.”

Hayes says the refuge and other environmental interest groups would want money to fix problems, a process called “adaptive management,” placed in an escrow account.  “The whole point of adaptive management is to act fast,” he explains.

SHEP is not a done deal, despite the Corps’ April recommendation report stating that dredging to 47 feet is “economically viable, environmentally sustainable and in the best interests of the United States.”

Four different departments have to sign the Record of Decision: the Department of the Interior, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (and, by extension, the wildlife refuge), the Department of the Army, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce.

According to the Corps report, signing is expected this fall.  Barring any hitches (read: lawsuits, funding problems), the project could begin as early as February 2013 with the installation of the Speece Cones.  Dredging could be completed three to four years after that.

Go deeper.  To learn more about the complex set of issues regarding SHEP, visit the Savannah Morning News.