The U.S. House of Representatives cleared an obstacle to deepening the Savannah harbor with passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. It removes a spending cap on the dredging project. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah praises the “pro-job, pro-America” legislation, while a coastal environmentalist deems it a “major setback.”
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By David Kyler
In the interest of taxpayers and full disclosure, some important considerations need to be brought to light regarding the recent approval of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Contrary to Rep. Jack Kingston’s praise for cutting “bureaucratic red tape” and expediting projects, the bill will result in billions in tax dollars squandered on projects of dubious benefit. Moreover, by eliminating important environmental evaluation requirements and spending controls, still more waste at taxpayers’ expense will occur.
WRRDA is not a “huge win,” as Kingston claims, but a fiasco in the fight against pork-barrel spending. This bill is a major setback.
The Savannah harbor deepening project is a prime example of the legislation’s failure to honestly support taxpayer interests. Although the project is estimated to cost $652 million, about half of that is to pay for attempts to limit, or compensate for, harm to water quality, fisheries, wetlands and other resources of great economic value. For this reason alone, it’s prudent to doubt the project is well justified.
The history of the Army Corps of Engineers’ performance does not bode well for the reliability of such mitigation, its real costs to the public or its proper assessment after implementation. WRRDA does nothing to improve these deficiencies.
It doesn’t provide the follow-through needed to ensure that when mitigation efforts don’t work, project damage will be reliably controlled. Regulatory exemptions created by the act will further weaken controls by eliminating vital review sanctions, causing still more wasted tax dollars, since damage repair after the fact will be expensive, if not impossible.
When damage recovery is impossible, economic hardships will be shifted onto tourism, fisheries, coastal communities and property owners, with losses potentially reaching millions of dollars annually.
Significantly, despite lengthy study of the Savannah project, there has never been any evaluation of the actual need for deep-water ports in the Southeast. Based on careful observation of existing ports in the rest of the world, including the U.S. West Coast, only a few deep ports will even be required.
As a candidate for deepening, Savannah’s port, being 38 miles upriver, does not compare well with other ports in the Southeast, including some that are already deeper than Savannah’s will be after spending at least $652 million. It is notable these other ports are also much more accessible to ocean shipping channels, without risky navigational problems.
Many experts agree that U.S. competitiveness in a global market does not depend on deepening every port along the East Coast. For both U.S. competitive interests as well as taxpayer safeguards, it is best to deepen only a few ports strategically located and naturally well-suited. Savannah’s port is not one of them. Whether federal funds or state money is used for this project, taxpayers are the unwitting dupes paying the check. The House version of WRRDA is the brazen accomplice.
David Kyler is executive director of Center for a Sustainable Coast.
By Jack Kingston
After 14 years and the most comprehensive study of the Savannah River in history, at least two things are clear: Savannah’s harbor can be deepened in an environmentally sensitive manner, and the project is in our national interest.
When Congress first authorized this project in 1999, we included a unique provision for a civil works project, requiring that four federal agencies approve it and certify that its environmental impact is adequately mitigated.
The Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency — in addition to Georgia and South Carolina — have participated in the study that created our current environmental mitigation plan. Every effort was made to avoid and reduce environmental impact. Such great care was taken, mitigation accounts for about half the total project cost.
Mitigation projects include flow rerouting to expand wetlands, the expansion of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge by 2,245 acres, marsh restoration, the removal and conservation of the sunken CSS Georgia Civil War ironclad, and a dissolved oxygen system that will improve oxygen levels in 90 percent of the estuary.
The Corps has doubled its planned monitoring period from five years to 10, giving it additional time and resources to ensure mitigation is working and make adjustments as necessary.
Beyond ensuring the project can be completed in an environmentally sensitive manner, it is incumbent on the Corps, Congress, and me as representative to ensure the project is a good use of limited taxpayer resources.
For every dollar we invest in the expansion of Savannah’s harbor, we will see a return of $5.50. That is the greatest return on investment for any project of this kind. Also, Georgia’s deep-water ports are regional and national economic engines. They support 352,000 jobs and contribute $18.5 billion in income, $66.9 billion in revenues, $2.5 billion in state and local taxes and $4.5 billion in federal taxes yearly.
Deepening Savannah’s harbor will augment that already huge economic impact. Once completed, the project will yield $174 million annually in net economic benefit. The Corps also estimates the project will more than double the amount of cargo that passes through the port by 2030.
Companies using the port will realize great efficiencies, as fewer ships can carry more goods. They are estimated to see a savings of $213 million each year, or $10 billion over the life of the project, that can be reinvested in job creation and business expansion.
This project makes economic and environmental sense. In the time we studied it, China took a port larger and deeper than Savannah from start to finish. We cannot fall behind.
If America is to remain competitive, we must be able to accomplish big things. The Savannah Harbor expansion project, most certainly, is a big thing.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston represents Georgia’s 1st Congressional District.