U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham stopped by the State Ports Authority office this morning with a warning: If the South Carolina's Congressional delegation can't secure money to deepen Charleston Harbor, the result could seriously damage the state's economy.

The state needs $250 million to $300 million to take the shipping channel to 50 feet from 45 feet, making it attractive to mega-ships on order as the Panama Canal expansion moves to its 2014 completion.

That hefty price tag comes in far cheaper than some competing ports, but South Carolina lags in taking its first steps in the project, namely a $400,000 feasibility study.

"God dealt us a good hand in South Carolina," Graham said, referring to the harbor's natural attributes. But he also cautioned: 'If we don't start this year, we fall further behind.'

Perennial rival Georgia Ports Authority, for example, intends to spend $800 million to dredge to 48 feet, a depth South Carolina already enjoys when the tides cooperate.

'We're the only state with a port on the East Coast that has no money in the U.S. Senate to deepen our harbor,' Graham said.

U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, who joined Graham today, secured the necessary $400,000 for the study to begin next year, but that funding still must receive Senate approval and then the nod from both houses of Congress. Brown explained that the earmark process, though often stigmatized, provides the only opportunity to get the money in place this year.

Bill Stern, the SPA's chairman, called a missed chance at this funding the quickest path to Charleston becoming a second-tier port. The Senate appropriations bill currently includes no such earmark for harbor deepening.