When the Army Corps of Engineers released final documents Wednesday for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, it surprised the industry by calling for dredging the Savannah River to a depth of 47 feet — not the 48 feet that has long been the depth targeted by the Georgia Ports Authority.
During a press conference announcing the release, the Army Corps announced that SHEP would increase the depth of the Savannah River by an additional 5 feet to 47 feet at mean low water.
“The corps chose the optimal net benefits to the project, and that happens to be at 47 feet,” said Curtis Foltz, GPA executive director. “The benefits are still extremely strong at 48 feet, but there are diminishing returns after you cross the 47-foot barrier.” He said the Army Corps’ studies showed that the 5 additional feet of channel depth that SHEP would create would accommodate commerce and trade most efficiently. “So we are very comfortable with it.”
The corps based its dredging decision on the expected return of economic benefits to the nation under the National Economic Development Plan. The studies released by the corps Wednesday estimated the cost of SHEP at $652 million and the annual return of net benefits to the nation at $174 million. The studies state that every dollar spent on the project would produce a return of $5.50 to the nation.
Foltz said the 47-foot depth would enable the Port of Savannah to handle all the big new ships that would come through the Panama Canal after 2014 after its new locks are completed and open. “We’re going to be fine with 47 feet at low tide and 54 feet at high tide, so we are very comfortable with it,” he said.
Other East Coast ports, including Virginia and Baltimore already have harbors with 50-foot depths, and New York-New Jersey will have a 50-foot channel into its major New Jersey terminals by the end of this year. Miami has the permits it needs to deepen its harbor to 50 feet, and Charleston is beginning a feasibility study to deepen its harbor to that depth.
But Foltz doesn’t think that 3 feet of shallower water will hamper Savannah’s container traffic. “The carriers we’ve spoken to all say they are comfortable their needs are going to be serviced here very efficiently.”