Although its channel depth is supposed to be 38 feet at the harbor entrance, Brunswick, Ga., currently has only 31 feet at low tide due to shoaling and inadequate funding for dredging, constraining shipping at one of the nation’s largest auto gateways.
To minimize constraints on ships that either have to load less cargo or wait for high tide to enter or depart, the Georgia Ports Authority is spending $3 million of its own money to dredge the channel to 35 feet, a project that is under way. “We’re going to get to 35 feet and that is still not enough,” said Colonel Thomas J. Tickner, commander and district engineer for the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Brunswick is not alone. In recent years as Congress has appropriated only about half of the fees on importers generated for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, several ports have become several feet shallower than their authorized depth, that is, the depth they are supposed to be maintained at.
Among them is Mobile, Ala., authorized at 55 feet but currently only at 45 feet mean low water, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, also authorized at 55 feet but only currently at 45 feet, and the channel to the port of Stockton, Calif., authorized at 45 feet but only at 35 feet currently. Mean low water is the low tide average. Thus if mean low water is 40 feet any ships that draw less than that can enter or leave the port at any time. If a ship’s draught is deeper than mean low water then it must wait for a higher tide.
The constraints on shipping at Brunswick, the 3rd busiest roll-on, roll-off port in the U.S., are so severe that the GPA decided to spend its own money, allocating $3 million to get the depth down to 35 feet, a project that will be completed this spring. The effect of the shoaling in the channel is such that ships carrying cars made by Hyundai, Volkswagen, Kia, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota must wait sometimes for hours for a favorable tide to enter or leave the port. Brunswick also has a bulk handling facility that moves 1 million tons of agribulk annually, and a general cargo forest products export facility, whose ships must sometimes load less cargo because of the tide.
“It’s been woefully underfunded every year to maintain the depth,” GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz told the JOC. “Some of the large ro-ro ships not only carrying autos but high and heavy cargo like agriculture equipment are being delayed awaiting tidal movements,” he said. “It’s the classic infrastructure challenge,” he said, referring to Brunswick and similar scenarios around the country. “It lessens our competitiveness and increases the cost of shipping goods as a nation.”
Tickner said, “we are striving to keep (Brunswick) at the authorized depth,” but the funding hasn’t been there. There could be relief for Brunswick and other ports if the Water Resources Development Act is approved by Congress. Current language would incrementally increase the amount of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that gets spent rather than withheld as an offset to the deficit. Under the wording, allocations from the fund would grow to 65 percent of FY 13 HMT receipts up to 80 percent by FY 2020, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. “Both the House and Senate (versions of WRDA) have language that would improve the funding for O&M (Army Corps’ operations and maintenance) activities like Brunswick,” Foltz said.