Will Port of Savannah be ready for new canal standard?

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The new threshold for ships is being built right now in Panama, where the canal will be deeper and wider by August 2014.

Will Georgia's Ports in Savannah be ready? They've been trying to form a plan to get rid of the one and only impediment - the depth of the Savannah River.

"We've been the fastest growing port in the United States in the last 10 years … by a pretty big margin. Right now, we're the fourth busiest port in terms of container volume in the United States," said Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "One statistic that we're not proud of but it is a reality that we've got to face every day is we're the shallowest major port in the world."

The channel is 42 feet deep and a plan calls for it to be deepened 48 feet. So far, the Army Corps of Engineers says 47 feet serves the national interest.

"It's probably the most studied project of this scope that the corps has ever dealt with," Foltz said.

Col. Jeffrey Hall, commander of the Savannah District of the US Army Corps, said the proposal is a unique authorization.

"There hasn't been another one like it in the corps that gives the administrator of the EPA, the secretaries of commerce, interior and the army, an approval on the final plan and the associated mitigation," he said.

The study of environmental impact, mitigation plans has been going on for 12 years.

What about erosion? The river's not that wide.

"We're going to extend the side slopes of the existing channel to get us down to the depth that's finally approved by the different cooperating agencies  and what that allows us to do is to accommodate the larger vessel traffic more efficiently and safer than we do today," Hall said.

But can the river pilots navigate it in those massive ships? For that answer, the corps done extensive simulation with competent input.

"Our pilots, we have complete confidence in them. They've worked with the corps very closely in designing all the navigational features, so as far as we're concerned, the voice that really matters has been at the table and they've given us a green light," Hall said.

He said that they have compensated for salt water heading upstream as a result of the deepening, which would threaten wildlife, by closing a series of cuts and creating some diversions to allow fresh water to flow to the backriver towards the wildlife refuge.

Flow controls, like tide gates built back in the 1970s. caused some unintended consequences. The gates were taken out in 1991. And in the current plan?

"It'll be taken out in its entirety - down to the concrete sill level and used as part of the mitigation for that project," Hall said.

But what if something similar happens again - or the plan just doesn't work as expected?

He said their plan is to monitor during construction and monitor after construction and if the desired effect that they were looking for doesn't materialize or doesn't occur. "They will have adaptive management - we can go in and look at it - change the feature or do something different to get the desired effect," he said.

Foltz said he sees that as just one of many mutual benefits between Georgia and South Carolina.

"For us to successfully service commerce in the growing demographics in this region … we need all of the capacity we can produce .and ships don't need to be waiting for tides. That costs you and I as consumers," he said.

As for funding, the state's doing its part and congress won't act until the Army Corps of Engineers delivers its final plan.

"We need deeper water now," Foltz said.

Copyright 2011 WTOC. All rights reserved.