SAVANNAH — A dredging ship on the Savannah River emptied another load of sand and mud capable of filling roughly 170 dump trucks this week as officials overseeing the $973 million deepening of the shipping channel to the Port of Savannah declared the project had nearly reached its halfway point.
Almost 2½ years have passed since dredging began along the 40-mile stretch linking the nation's fourth-busiest container port to the Atlantic Ocean. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co.,, which was hired to deepen the first half from the ocean into the Savannah River past Tybee Island, is scheduled to finish its job in March. The Illinois-based company also is handling Charleston's harbor deepening, which kicked off Friday.
The commander of the Savannah outpost of Army Corps of Engineers said if there are no delays, the Georgia project could be finished in January 2022.
"Really, we're just over halfway" once deepening of the stretch known as the outer harbor is complete, said Col. Marvin Griffin. "We've made a huge amount of progress."
Like other East Coast seaports, Savannah is racing to dig deep and make room for larger cargo ships now arriving through the expanded Panama Canal. Until the dredging is completed, those big ships have to carry lighter loads and navigate the river at higher tides.
Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest port for containerized cargo: goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens shipped in large metal boxes. Last year, the port for the first time handled imports and exports totaling more than 4 million container units.
The Georgia Ports Authority spent 16 years waiting for studies and funding before dredging began in September 2015. Since then, Great Lakes' dredging vessels have scooped about 12 million cubic yards of sand and mud from the river bottom — enough to fill roughly 857,000 dump trucks. The sediments have been dumped at designated sites at sea and on land tracts along the river.
Now that job is 98 percent done, said Armand Riehl, the company's project manager. A single hopper dredge is mopping up rough spots on the river bottom identified by sonar scans of the work area. He couldn't say how much longer that will take, but the dredge needs to be out of the area by the end of March to minimize potential harm to sea turtles.
"It depends on the weather, but we're right at the end," Riehl said.
Once Great Lakes finishes its half of the job, dredging of the river past downtown Savannah to the port's docks isn't expected to start until early 2019.
In the coming months, contractors are scheduled to finish building machines designed to offset a loss of dissolved oxygen, which fish need to breathe, as the river gets deeper. The Army Corps is spending about $100 million on two machines that will suck up river water, swirl it with oxygen bubbles and inject it to the bottom of the river.
Griffin said construction of the first machine should wrap up this summer. Then it needs to be tested to ensure it boosts oxygen levels as planned. A 2013 legal settlement between the Corps and environmental groups concerned about ecological damage from the project requires proof that the oxygen injectors work before deepening can commence on the shipping channel's second half.
President Donald Trump has requested another $49 million to fund the Savannah harbor deepening in his budget for the 2019 fiscal year that starts in October. Georgia officials say the project needs about $100 million annually to avoid delays.
Gov. Nathan Deal has asked state lawmakers this year to allocate an additional $35 million in state funds to help keep the project on schedule. In a statement Wednesday, Deal called reaching the project's midpoint is "a crucial milestone."