SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Nearly seven years after government-funded dredging added 6 feet of depth to the waterway connecting the Port of Brunswick to the Atlantic Ocean, much of that extra room for cargo ships has been erased by tides and storms piling fresh layers of sand and sediments into the channel.
Edwin Fendig III, who has spent three decades as a harbor pilot steering the hulking ships between the ocean and Brunswick's docks, says the water is now so shallow that roughly one in four ships can't travel the shipping channel at low tide. Though shippers importing goods through Brunswick pay about $15 million each year in federal taxes collected to pay for keeping harbors clear, only a fraction gets spent for that purpose.
"I can't ever remember the channel being maintained properly. Ever," Fendig said. "There's been a time or two that they got it all out. But only a time or two. This is a battle we fight every day."
The Port of Brunswick is getting at least some relief this year. Contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers got underway in late January with a $6 million contract to dredge 5.3 miles of the channel that follows the Brunswick River and extends out to sea. The work is expected to wrap up Feb. 20, said Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps in Savannah.
While federal and state officials are pushing hard to start a $652 million deepening of the river channel to the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, its sister port in Brunswick 60 miles to the south has struggled to get money for maintenance that costs 100 times less.
It's not because Brunswick lacks for port business. Brunswick handled nearly 637,000 automobiles and heavy machines by Caterpillar and other manufacturers in the most recent fiscal year, making it the nation's second-busiest port for auto imports and exports. More than 1.75 million tons of bulk cargo, from soybeans to wood pellets used to fuel power plants overseas, also moved through Brunswick in fiscal 2013.
What's caused Brunswick, along with many other U.S. ports, to fall behind at keeping their shipping lanes at optimum depths? Washington collects about $1.8 billion in taxes on imported cargo each year to pay for harbor maintenance. But only about half the money has gone to upkeep since the mid-1990s, with Congress spending the rest on unrelated programs. The American Association of Port Authorities says that's resulted in most U.S. ports operating with shipping channels below their authorized depth and width about 65 percent of the time.
In Brunswick's case, shippers using the port have chipped in $12.8 million to $15.2 million in harbor maintenance taxes in recent years, while the Army Corps of Engineers has only received $3.2 to $5.6 million annually to dredge the harbor. That's "woefully insufficient" and hasn't kept sediments from building up in the waterway, said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
While the Army Corps in 2007 deepened Brunswick's channel to 36 feet, it's returned to depths of just 30 feet in some areas, Foltz said. That means many ships have to carry lighter loads to navigate the shallower waters.
"Right now I think it's safe to say that every vessel that's departing Brunswick carrying bulk cargo, although the material is there, they're not able to take full advantage of the ship's capacity because of the depth of the harbor," Foltz said. "In other words, freight is being left on the docks."
Georgia port officials decided Brunswick's harbor was in dire enough shape that they opted to pay half of the $6 million worth of maintenance dredging now underway, though upkeep of the federal waterway is supposed to be Washington's responsibility.
More money could be on the way. Congress approved $1 billion in funding for harbor maintenance projects in the spending plan the president signed last month. And water projects bills that passed the House and Senate last year would require Congress to spend even more on harbor upkeep. The chambers are still working toward a final compromise.
Foltz said the latest round of dredging in Brunswick won't fully restore its channel depth. Georgia port officials say keeping the waterway at its maximum depth would require about $12 million a year.
"It's going to take some time," Foltz said. "Brunswick is a very small example of what's occurring in our waterways around the nation. Suffice to say several years or a decade of catching up will have to occur."