Trump administration finances US dregding projects

Virginia Beach GLDD work site in view. Credit: USACE

The Trump administration has allowed federal money to flow into projects to future-proof the waterways and ports that keep US industries moving

Preparation for larger vessels and competition between US ports and waterways are driving projects and requests for funding across the country. Boston Harbor is currently dredging roughly 9 million m³ of material at a cost of USD350 million to deepen its access channels to 15.5 m. Technicians have completed most of the mechanical dredging, with preparations under way for the design and contract package for rock removal.

The work at Boston is a significant dredging project among others happening nationwide, with campaigns administered by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) receiving significant amounts in federal appropriations for this fiscal year (FY) and announced in February 2020. These projects give a snapshot of the dredging activities happening in US waterways and the ports they serve.

Michael Ott, chief of the Corps’ Navigation Branch, explained to DPC the vital needs of coastal and inland navigation alike, noting that the nation’s harbours, channels, and waterways handle almost 2.17 billion metric tons of commerce annually. “More than 48% of consumer goods bought by Americans passes through harbours maintained by the USACE,” he said. Hence, USACE dredges more than 160.5 million m³ of “material each year to keep the nation’s waterways navigable”.

There are some shared issues as well. “Many US coastal ports have limited ability to accept post-Panamax cargo vessels, which drive international commerce,” said Ott. An estimated 596 million metric tons of cargo “could potentially be disrupted annually without regular maintenance dredging of major waterways”, he said. “The cost of dredging has increased 12% in the last 10 years (adjusted for inflation); this is coupled with ongoing sediment accumulation in coastal navigation channels,” he noted.

Money to spend

Federal funding for capital and maintenance dredging for FY 2020 rose 16% to USD7.6 billion, as reported by DPC’s sister title, Journal of Commerce (JOC). William Doyle, CEO and executive director of Dredging Contractors of America (DCA), put the appropriation in perspective, telling JOC, “The level of funding signals that both the Congress and the Trump administration continue to view harbour maintenance as a critical component to world trade. US gateways must be deeper, wider, and safer to accommodate the larger container and tanker vessels.”

In its largest fund, the federal government allocated USD274.3 million to deepen and widen three navigation channels serving the Port of Mobile, Alabama. The project, which is also being funded by the state of Alabama, will take the channels’ overall depths from 13.7 m to 15.2 m. The aim is to more efficiently serve 9,000 teu and larger vessels and thus attract new business.

The project could, reportedly, begin in October 2020 and be completed by 2024. According to the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), the project is currently in engineering and design phase, with construction expected to start late in 2020 and wrap up in about three years.

The impetus is apparent to James Lyons, ASPA’s director and CEO. He said, “We are looking forward to getting the project started and completed so that our shippers can begin reaping the benefits of the larger vessels being accommodated.”

Elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico region, another USD85 million was allocated for dredging work to start this year. The project is meant to deepen the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and the gulf near New Orleans to 15.2 m. The southernmost stretch will be deepened to 16.4 m. The current depth averages about 14 m.

As the JOC has reported, the additional depth would remove draft limitations, enabling tankers and bulk vessels  to be fully loaded. Additionally, materials to be generated in the project will be used to create wetlands that will provide habitat as well as protection from flooding, and form part of a regional dredging demonstration programme.

Deeper down

Other significant dredging projects are also advancing, one of which is Virginia Port Authority’s USD350 million dredging project. The first phase of work is being carried out by Weeks Marine, which will deepen the port’s shipping channels in Norfolk to 16.7 m and widen them to 426.7 m upon completion in 2024.

A USD558 million project at the Port of Charleston, which will complete in 2022, will take its depths to 15.8 m, thus enabling the port to service three post-Panamax ships simultaneously and with no tidal restrictions. The campaign exemplifies the South Carolina Ports Authority’s varied agenda of dredging, reclamation, and construction projects at Charleston in recent years.

At the Port of Jacksonville (JAXPORT), nearby St Johns River in the state of Florida, work is under way on a USD704.5 million sequential project to deepen the 21 km long federal navigation channel to 14.3 m, an increase of 2.1 m. Dredgers also are widening sections of the channel and at least two turning basins, including one at the port’s Blunt Island Marine Terminal. The federal government awarded the funding this year, with additional investment poured in by Florida state, JAXPORT, and port tenants. This initiative is designed to eliminate light loading to capture more traffic. Work is scheduled for completion in 2023.

At the Port of Savannah in Georgia, an estimated 3.8 million m³ of material is being dredged as part of a USD973 million expansion project that is now in its second and final phase. The dredging, for which the federal government awarded USD130.3 million in February, will deepen the 35 km of Savannah’s inner harbour by 1.5 m, and bring it to the same depth of the outer harbour.

A barge being used in the Boston Harbor deepening project. Credit: USACE

Once completed, the modernised port has been projected to bring USD282 million in annual economic benefits nationally. In 2019, maintenance dredging also took place at the port, and in recent years USACE has cleared as much as 4.5 million m³ of silt that collects annually in Savannah’s inner harbour and entrance channel.

The Boston Harbor project received USD38.8 million of federal funds for FY 2020, with the state and port also providing funding during the life of the project. Jenifer Thalhauser, USACE project manager at Boston, explained that the funding “will allow us to continue to move forward with the vitally important … project in a timely manner. Receiving this and future appropriations for the project allow us to continue the project without delay or stop of work”.

As for the benefits, she said the project “will provide greater depths to the federal channels and allow larger vessels needing greater depth to call at the Boston Harbor port. Since the Panama Canal was improved, larger ships now regularly call on the East Coast. Providing reliable access to the port by these vessels reduces costs, reduces the number of trucks on the road transiting between NY [New York] and Boston because the ships can carry those goods, and improves commercial navigation in the region for a benefit to all”.

Federal agencies, port authorities, state agencies, and localities working in conjunction with USACE are contributing crucial elements to other dredging campaigns of merit across a broad range of activities. There are novel beneficial use of sediment efforts related to Lake Erie in Ohio; coastal resilience work in Virginia Beach on the Atlantic coast; and strategic storage and environmental projects at Chesapeake Bay in the Baltimore region.

All-round resilience

On another front, dredging campaigns of all sizes and types are increasingly marked by sophisticated, evolving, and varied environmental components. “Much of the dredged material is reused beneficially for environmental restoration projects, including the creation and restoration of wetlands and other valuable habitat,” noted Otts.

Restored and expanded habitats can serve as flood and coastal resilience barriers while providing storage capacity. With such complex tasks come challenges and setbacks: in 2018, it was reported that USACE settled a lawsuit brought by environmentalists by agreeing to replant coral killed and damaged by mud kicked up in 2015 during a USD205 million dredging operation in Port Miami, Florida.

Still, dredging’s eco-friendly record across the country is impressive. Take, for example, the Poplar Island project in Chesapeake Bay and the Cat Island Chain in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. Both projects are creating years of dredged material storage space by using clean sediment to construct important bird, plant, and aquatic habitats.

The constructions restore islands lost to rising water levels and erosion over many years, providing tangible environmental and economic benefits. Efforts also are under way to develop new land-side uses and markets for the beneficial use of dredged materials. In so doing, such projects show how dredging helps in evolving ways.

It is not just USACE’s engineering output that is developing. Methods of contracting and financing are also starting to be updated, with the Corps and the US Senate trying a regional contracting approach that supporters claim would streamline the process. The idea is to move towards contracts that enable regional dredging of multiple navigation channels serving several ports. To test the approach, the Congress’ FY 2020 appropriations bill created the so-called Gulf Regional Demonstration Program for dredging in the nation’s central Gulf Coast, which includes the deepening of Mississippi River.

Dredge Hampton Roads maintenance dredging at Savannah River. Credit: Jonathan Bell/USACE

The demonstration programme “will explore innovative ways of executing dredging in a logical sequenced manner, unconstrained by more traditional project-specific, account-specific, or single-year practices”, said Ott. DCA’s Doyle praised the programme, calling it a “creative and remarkable piece of legislation”. Such a multiport, multiyear approach may be a trendsetter, at least for future USACE projects. As Ott sees it, “The increased utilisation of regional contracts allows for proper scaling and sequencing of projects to maximise efficiency.”

“We believe that cost and time savings can be achieved through a regional, multipurpose approach implemented over a multiyear time frame,” Todd Semonite, USACE commanding general and chief of engineers, told the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in October 2019.

Semonite also testified that “alternative financing” is another significant initiative for the Corps, explaining that “fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraints demand that we utilise innovative approaches that allow for accelerated processing, project execution, and early realisation of benefits with increased efficiency and effectiveness”.

Such approaches could include a water infrastructure loan programme, establishing more public-private partnership opportunities, and revising metrics for multiyear capital budgeting processes. He also described streamlined-permitting processes that would get projects done more quickly while protecting the environment.

However, there were still a number of challenges that USACE and other dredging entities must face. As Ott said, “Continued focus is needed toward operating and maintaining the nation’s harbours, channels, waterways, and infrastructure by using asset management principles that target the greatest economic, environmental, and public safety returns to the nation.”