The Port of Savannah’s chances for sharing in an expected massive increase in ocean shipping through an expanded Panama Canal received a huge boost Wednesday morning after the Army Corps of Engineers gave a greenlight to deepening the port’s shipping channel.
The announcement ends a 14-year wait by the Georgia Ports Authority for permission to dredge a more than 12-mile portion of the channel on the Savannah River to 47 feet. The river opens to the Atlantic Ocean and cargo ships must navigate the channel to reach port facilities just west of Savannah. Without the deepening, say port officials, the new generation of mega freighters that will be coming through the enlarged Panama Canal after 2015 would not be able to call on the port.
The channel deepening has far-reaching consequences for the future of the Port of Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s economy, say supporters.
In a final report issued Wednesday and backed by a host of state and federal regulatory agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that deepening Savannah harbor from its current depth of 42 feet to 47 feet is economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and in the best interests of the United States.
Opponents question the true amount of economic benefits the deepened channel would bring and predict environmental problems, including a possible increase in saltwater intrusion into the region’s drinking water supply.
Georgia ports and elected officials had been expecting federal help in covering the more than $650 million cost of the dredging. But state and federal officials now concede prospects for federal money are dim.
Gov. Nathan Deal has been a strong advocate of the deepening and some speculation has arisen that he may try to insert at least some funding in the annual state bond issue for the project.
It is believed that if Georgia funded the work itself, the dredging would be the largest single economic development project the state has ever undertaken.
The Corps’ final report consists of a General Re-evaluation Report (GRR) and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)-
“Today’s release culminates 14 years of intense study, analysis, and coordination with state and federal agencies, stakeholders and the general public,” ; said Col. Jeff M. Hall, Commander of the Savannah District. “The cooperating agencies have unanimously agreed to the release of the final report.”
Serving as Cooperating Agencies in preparing the final report were: Environmental Protection Agency – Region IV; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service – Southeast Region; US Fish and Wildlife Service – Southeast Region; and the Georgia Ports Authority.
“The Final Report represents the most comprehensive study for harbor deepening in the nation’s history,” Hall said. “We are confident that our report is thorough and strong, and that the project will enhance the nation’s global competitiveness while sustaining the natural environment.”
The final report recommends the 47-foot plan, which is also the “National Economic Development” Plan. Signing of the Record of Decision-the final step in the process before construction can begin-is anticipated in late 2012.
The GRR-EIS study, authorized by Congress, reflects an extensive analysis of the engineering alternatives, environmental impacts, and economic costs and benefits of deepening the Savannah Harbor and shipping channel. Funded by the federal government and the state of Georgia, the study examined the characteristics of future international shipping fleets, current and future trade routes, and the capacity of the Garden City Terminal on the Savannah River.
Based on analysis within the report, the 47-foot plan would bring $174 million in annual net benefits to the nation, with a cost-to-benefit ratio of 5.5 to 1. Essentially, for every $1 invested in the project, the nation would yield nearly $6 in returns.
The estimated total cost for the project, based on fiscal year 2012 levels, is $652 million, cost-shared by the Federal government and the State of Georgia.
Of the total cost, 45 percent accounts for environmental mitigation features at $292 million. Environmental features include flow-rerouting for marsh restoration, a fish bypass upstream near Augusta for the endangered Shortnose Sturgeon, a dissolved oxygen injection system, recovery of the ironclad CSS Georgia, a 10-year post-construction monitoring period, and more.
The public can view the report online at http:
The Georgia Ports Authority has sought permitting for more than a decade and insists that without a deeper harbor it will lose the massive new business East Coast and Gulf ports expect to gain upon completion of an expansion and widening of the Panama Canal in 2015.