SAVANNAH — Plans to deepen the busy river channel that ships navigate to reach the Port of Savannah both shrunk and expanded Wednesday as Georgia's port chiefs agreed to give up 1 foot of water depth and a federal agency's final study on the project added about $50 million in costs to taxpayers.
Those were the major changes as the Army Corps of Engineers released a final version of its massive study on the economic and environmental impacts of deepening 38 miles of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean.
Previously the Georgia Ports Authority had sought to dredge the river channel by 6 feet to a depth of 48 feet at low tide, at an estimated cost of more than $600 million. But port officials yielded to the federal agency's findings that it would be better to dredge only 5 feet to a depth of 47 feet. The new cost estimate: $652 million, with most of the extra money going to offset environmental damage.
"It's a major milestone for the project," said Col. Jeff Hall, commander of the Army Corps' Savannah District, which spent $41 million studying the harbor deepening since it was first proposed 16 years ago.
The big question was how much Georgia port officials had given up by agreeing to the shallower depth. As the nation's fourth busiest container port, Savannah has the shallowest waterway of any major U.S. port. State officials have long argued they need deeper water to stay competitive as cargo ships grow larger.
Savannah and other East Coast ports are racing to deepen their harbors to accommodate supersize cargo ships after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2014. The upgraded canal will handle ships needing 50 feet of water.
Georgia Ports Authority director Curtis Foltz dismissed any notion that Savannah might lose business to port competitors such as neighboring Charleston, S.C., that are seeking to deepen their harbors to 50 feet. Foltz said he believes, even after the canal is expanded, most ships calling on the East Coast won't need more than 46 feet of water. And Savannah would have more than 50 feet of depth at high tide.
"We've been the shallowest port in the South for a decade, but we've been the fastest growing," said Foltz, who insisted the port's customers "know how to work around it."
Each foot of depth Savannah adds allows ships to carry heavier cargo loads at lower tides. That helps shipping lines, and their customers, save money by improving efficiency.
One shipping line executive said Savannah's decision to settle for one less foot of depth probably won't be a "game changer" for the port's business operations.
"If they go on and move ahead and dredge to 47 feet, we should say it's a good day," said Christopher Parvin, vice president of marine operations for Mediterranean Shipping Company, which has a fleet of 457 cargo ships worldwide. "Would it have been better to go to 48 feet? Yeah. But we don't live in a perfect world."
The port at Charleston, S.C., one of Savannah's nearest and fiercest competitors, is seeking to deepen its harbor from 45 to 50 feet, with completion expected between 2020 and 2024. South Carolina ports chief Jim Newsome said he believes Charleston must match the Panama Canal's depth to stay competitive.
"We think 50 feet is the minimum requirement for the future," Newsome said. "Our harbor today, we think, can roughly handle what Savannah will achieve if and when they finally complete their project. And I think that's still an open question."
Lawmakers in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, have opposed the port deepening here. Environmental groups have filed at three legal challenges to the project in South Carolina courts.
The Corps favored a depth of 47 feet in its draft report from November 2010. Georgia officials wanted the extra foot badly enough to use state funds to cover the additional cost. Foltz said state officials backed off because the shallower depth showed the best cost-to-benefit ratio.
Completion of the report, which spans more than 11 feet when propped between bookends, allows the Army Corps to seek final approval to begin dredging after a 30-day public comment period.
As expected, the agency concluded the deepening project makes economic sense despite the high cost of repairing environmental damage. The final analyses predicted $174 million in annual savings by improving efficiency for shippers.
Gov. Nathan Deal has made the harbor expansion an economic priority and Georgia port officials are pushing to get it done by the end of 2016. State taxpayers would foot 30 percent of the cost, with the federal government paying for the rest.
The Army Corps says more than $292 million will go to environmental mitigation. That includes building a river bypass around a dam near Augusta to let endangered shortnosed sturgeons reach waters expected to boost their spawning success. Savannah's water treatment plant would get a 38-acre retention pool to serve as a backup water source for when pipe-corroding chlorides get too high during droughts.
The Corps also plans to create 2,200 acres of new wetlands to make up for an estimated 223 acres of valuable freshwater marsh expected to be lost to saltwater intrusion, most of it within the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. And it plans to install machines to pump oxygen to the river bottom to make up for a loss in dissolved oxygen.
Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he couldn't immediately tell how much the millions proposed for additional mitigation would alleviate the group's prior concerns.
"We think it threatens to harm forever one of the most valuable natural resources in the country at a great cost to the taxpayer," DeScherer said. "There would have to be some substantial changes or amendments to respond to the issues we raised."