Savannah’s dredging gamble
Georgia’s plan to deepen the Savannah River is immensely popular with state and port leaders there. But experts question whether it would bring the business and jobs that are being promised and whether it is worth the staggering pricetag and extensive damage to the environment.
A three-part investigative series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week concluded, in essence, that the port project is a big gamble.
There is a degree of risk in any project.
In this case, will a river that is dug to 48 feet deep attract large ships that can require as much as 50 feet?
Will the cash-strapped federal government pitch in the necessary $400 million toward the $650 million cost projection?
The rival port of Charleston wants to deepen its shipping channel to 50 feet at a cost of $300 million-$350 million. In terms of price and environmental impact, it is clearly a better option than the Savannah project.
But in the absence of a national port development plan, it won’t necessarily make a difference. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has endorsed such a comprehensive review proposal. Altogether, 10 ports on the East and Gulf coasts are planning similar projects.
Nevertheless, the details cited in AJC reporter Dan Chapman’s series appear to bolster Charleston’s case.
For example, the Corps of Engineers has predicted “no additional cargo volume through Savannah Harbor as a result of the proposed harbor deepening.”
This is in contrast to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s prediction of “much more cargo coming in.”
Another disadvantage is Savannah’s depth. It is one of the country’s shallowest container ports. Mr. Chapman reports that 80 percent of vessels calling on Savannah “are too big or too laden with cargo to run the river without timing their trips to higher tides.”
The series also points out that more than a third of the Savannah River project’s costs are to address environmental problems: $52 million to install machines to pump oxygen into the water in hopes that short-nosed sturgeons will not die from a lack of oxygen; almost $8 million for a “fish bypass” so those sturgeon can swim around a new lock and dam farther up the river; and nearly $14 million to raise the CSS Georgia, a Confederate ironclad “rotting on the river bottom.”
Georgia officials have voiced support for Charleston’s dredging project. And S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has gone to bat for Savannah’s project, to the dismay of the S.C. Legislature.
But Georgia has a lot more to gain by being neighborly. It is years ahead of South Carolina in the application process.
And it stands to reason that whichever port finishes its deepening project first will get a break on the new huge ship traffic.
Charleston’s port, once one of the East Coast’s busiest, is beginning to regain the ground it lost in the last decade. It has extraordinary natural assets, and it is developing a new terminal at the old Navy Base in North Charleston .
It should be able to stand up well in competition for federal dollars — if the competition takes place on anything approaching a level playing field.
Not surprisingly, Savannah is committed to getting a leg up on its dredging project.