By Liz Segrist
Published May 22, 2014
The deepening of the Charleston Harbor is one step closer to reality after the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a water resources reform bill conference report today.
The U.S. Senate voted 91-7 to pass the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which the U.S. House approved 412-4 on Tuesday. It now goes to President Barack Obama’s desk for approval. This is the first water resources bill to pass in seven years.
The bill enables ports authorities across the country to prevent delays on harbor deepening projects by beginning construction before congressional authorization is given. (Photo/John Wollwerth/Shutterstock)
Locally, the act will enable the Charleston Harbor Post 45 deepening project to move ahead with construction in September 2015, assuming the Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, gives the ports authority the green light in 2015.
The Charleston Army Corps is in the midst of its environmental study and plans to release its findings to the public in the summer. The chief’s report, due in September 2015, will give Congress a recommended depth to dredge the harbor.
The water act also increases the threshold for federal harbor maintenance funding from 45 feet to 50 feet. The S.C. State Ports Authority hopes to deepen Charleston Harbor to 50 feet or 52 feet to accommodate the bigger ships being ordered by shipping companies.
The Panama Canal expansion is expected to flood the East Coast with larger ships that need deeper harbors. The Port of Charleston already receives an average of seven post-Panamax vessel calls each week, according to the ports authority.
“This bill is critical to modernizing port and port-related infrastructure projects across the country, and we are extremely appreciative that key S.C. Ports Authority priorities, including our harbor deepening project, are included,” Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said in a statement.
The state has already set aside roughly $300 million for the deepening of Charleston Harbor, which is projected to cost at least $350 million. If the ports authority is able to deepen the harbor to 52 feet, Newsome said costs will increase.
To prevent delays, the water resources bill allows the state to “forward fund” construction beginning in 2015. The state can get authorization and reimbursement from the federal government later.
The water bill also provides cash for maintenance and improvement projects at smaller ports, like the Port of Georgetown.
Currently, half of the $1.8 billion collected into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is being used for maintenance dredging at smaller ports. The water bill will increase that amount annually until 100% of the fund is spent on operations and maintenance by 2025.
The U.S. Senate and House passed different versions of the water resources bill last year before sending it to a congressional conference committee to iron out the differences.
Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.