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Editor's Note: A deepening problem
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We get letters. This week we actually got a letter addressed to someone else, an open letter written by local environmental/civic activist Steve Willis, vice chair of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Steve's letter is directed to John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, who oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, of course, is at the vanguard of the effort to deepen the Savannah River "harbor" — a euphemism for the unusually long shipping channel from the mouth of the river on up to Georgia Ports Authority facilities on the other side of the Talmadge Bridge — to an average depth of 48 feet.

Note that is average depth; protocol usually calls for "surplus" dredging below that depth to keep the average at that number.

So we might be talking more like 50-51 feet. In a river which was only 18 feet deep when James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733.

After many years of study, both economic and environmental, the Port of Savannah Harbor Deepening project is at the cusp of final Congressional approval, meaning the money — at least a billion dollars when all's said and done — will actually be there, an ongoing question due to the general budgetary belt-tightening since the 2008 collapse.

I won't print Willis's letter in its entirety — that would take up nearly two pages — but I would like to quote extensively from it, because Willis succinctly summarizes the brutal conundrum, and the impending waste of both monetary treasure as well as environmental treasure.

"The U.S. is the only major global commercial power with no national port strategy," Willis says, adding that the country "now considers and approves harbor expansion and deepening proposals solely on when the Corps of Engineers receives requests, and when the Corps completes its 'studies.'"

(Air quotes are Steve's.)

Echoing a point I and others have tried to get across to little avail, Willis goes on:

"There is no port in the USA (or the world, for that matter), less suitable for this purpose than the Port of Savannah. If the Savannah channel is deepened, it will result in an extended narrow 38-mile long, winding, silt-prone, dangerous passageway."

I also have never understood why anyone would actively consider such a long, narrow shipping channel as truly economically viable in the long term, given that there are so many other options strictly from a physical sense.

It was all well and good a couple of centuries ago, when deerskins were barged down the Savannah River from trading posts near Augusta, the goods then shunted north through cuts in the marsh to be exported mostly from Charleston (not Savannah at all, due to — well, due to exactly what I'm talking about).

Willis opines that "The ships that this deepened channel are meant to accommodate are longer than the largest aircraft carriers. This foolish scheme is much like relocating the Norfolk Navy Base from the deep water at the mouth of the Chesapeake to Savannah."

And this is another point I and others have been trying to make. I'll try and be as succinct as I can, though the point is the very definition of common sense:

If the premise of the Savannah deepening is that cargo ships are getting bigger and bigger, especially due to the expansion of the Panama Canal, then doesn't it follow that some shipping channels will eventually be too small for these ever-growing monster cargo ships?

Like, oh say, a port many miles upriver through a meandering channel which needs constant dredging, a channel so tight and treacherous that the services of river pilots, their secret arts honed and handed down through the generations, are contractually required for a cargo ship to even enter said channel?


Wouldn't it just be more prudent, from a macro perspective, to stop spending money on shipping channels with more self-limiting parameters than other shipping channels?

As Willis says, "Nowhere in the world is there now a single Savannah-like port situated far up a single, narrow river channel being used to host super-sized container vessels, nor are any such ports under consideration to be developed in the future."

Willis mentions two other nations with similar far-upriver ports, the Netherlands and China, who completely retooled their harbors for the new reality.

"Rotterdam and Shanghai were situated much like Savannah, deep inland, with silt-prone rivers. Recognizing the futility of perpetual dredging to accommodate ever-larger container ships, the EEU and China determined to build new, nearby, ocean ports. Rotterdam developed the Europort at the mouth of the Nieuwe Waterweg River/Canal, and Shanghai built its new deep-water Yangshan Port on a nearby ocean island... Today Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe, and Shanghai is the largest container port in the world."

In the end — and perhaps far too late for any real change of course to happen —Willis supports a hub system of ports, rather than the seemingly much more parochial, politically expedient system the Corps and the U.S. Government seem to incentivize now:

"If a competent and objective analysis proved that a deep-water port were needed within the ocean front between Newport News and Miami, either Charleston, Jasper [South Carolina], Savannah, or Jacksonville, or some fresh site should be selected and developed. It is virtually certain Savannah would be the very least likely of these candidates to be selected," Willis says.

"What is certain is that no thoughtful person would recommend developing more than one deep water port to host super-sized container ships along the 200 mile coastline from Jacksonville to Charleston, much less four, as the Corps of Engineers seems to advocate."

I consider myself a pretty thoughtful person, thank you very much, and I agree with Willis there.

It's one thing to want Savannah to prosper economically; we all do.

But, as the Corps' own studies indicate, if that "prosperity" means massive environmental damage in exchange for a mere glimmer of potential job growth, than that isn't prosperity at all.

It's just an old-fashioned raw deal. That's what Willis is trying to say, and that's what I'm trying to say too.