Georgia Wants to Study Deepening Savannah's Harbor Again

The move comes on the heels of a $973 million dredging project.

In this photo provided by the Georgia Ports Authority, a vessel is loaded with containers by a ship to shore crane at the Georgia Ports Authority's Port of Savannah Garden City Terminal, on Oct. 21, 2021, in Savannah, Ga.
In this photo provided by the Georgia Ports Authority, a vessel is loaded with containers by a ship to shore crane at the Georgia Ports Authority's Port of Savannah Garden City Terminal, on Oct. 21, 2021, in Savannah, Ga.
Stephen B. Morton/Georgia Port Authority via AP

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Supersized cargo ships will need deeper water and a taller bridge to reach the Port of Savannah in the near future, the chief executive overseeing the major U.S. seaport said Thursday.

Griff Lynch, president and CEO of the Georgia Ports Authority, said during his annual "State of the Ports" speech that the $1.9 billion his agency is investing to grow Savannah's cargo handling capacity will need to be met with taxpayer-funded infrastructure upgrades.

Lynch said his agency is seeking congressional authorization to study another round of deepening for the Savannah River shipping channel. The Army Corps of Engineers last year finished deepening the waterway by 5 feet (1.5 meters), a $973 million project that took 25 years to study and execute.

Savannah has the fourth-busiest U.S. port for cargo shipped in containers — big metal boxes that transport everything including consumer electronics and frozen chickens. The port saw 5.4 million container units of imports and exports move across its docks in fiscal 2023.

The port authority estimates Savannah's container trade will swell to an estimated 7.6 million units by 2030 as population growth drives more trade to the Southeast and increased manufacturing in India, Thailand and Vietnam sends larger ships to the U.S. East Coast.

"Those are the types of things that will make us a national gateway," Lynch told a luncheon crowd of 1,200 including state and local business and political leaders. "We've got to be able to handle these ships. It's very, very important. And it's not just for the Georgia Ports Authority. It's for economic development throughout the state."

The Savannah harbor deepening completed in May 2022 followed a major expansion of the Panama Canal that routed larger ships to East Coast ports. Dredges scooped mud and sand for 40 miles (65 kilometers) between the port and the Atlantic Ocean, increasing the shipping channel's depth from 42 to 47 feet (12.8 to 14.3 meters).

Lynch said an increase in trade with India and other Southeast Asian countries will mean even bigger vessels reaching Savannah via the Suez Canal. While the Port of Savannah now typically sees ships that can carry 8,000 container units, Lynch expects vessels capable of transporting 22,000 units.

He said he would like to see the Savannah harbor deepened to between 50 and 52 feet (15.2 and 15.9 meters).

Those ships don't just need deeper water to reach Savannah's port. They're also too tall to squeeze beneath the Eugene Talmage Memorial Bridge spanning the river between downtown Savannah and the port's docks.

This year, the Georgia Department of Transportation signed off on plans to raise the bridge and replace its decades-old suspension cables at estimated costs of between $150 million and $175 million. Work is expected to start next year and be complete by early 2027, Lynch said.

"We have ships today that want to come here ... that cannot fit under the bridge." Lynch said.

Another round of shipping channel deepening would take far longer.

Feasibility studies on the prior dredging began in 1997, and nearly two decades passed before it could begin.

Lynch said he believes the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees navigation projects in U.S. waterways, could work more efficiently this time and finish a new one within 10 years.

First, Congress would need to authorize an Army Corps study of the project. The earliest that could happen would be next year as part of a new version of the Water Resources Development Act, which deals with infrastructure projects nationwide.

Spokespersons for U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and a Savannah native, and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican whose district includes Savannah's port, said they support studying another harbor expansion.

"This port affects every county in Georgia," said Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican who attended the speech. "So we're looking forward to getting to know more about what we need to do, what this infrastructure need is."

A new round of Savannah River dredging would raise concerns for conservation groups. The previous expansion required several expensive mitigation projects to offset environmental damage. They included $100 million to install large machines that inject extra oxygen into the river to ensure endangered shortnose sturgeon and other species can breathe.

Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the Army Corps should complete mitigation requirements for the last Savannah harbor deepening before starting a new round. He also suggested the Army Corps study whether other ports are better suited for bigger ships, noting Savannah's port sits near the 31,000 acre (12,545 hectare) Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

"Previous deepenings have had a wide range of harmful impacts to the refuge, water quality, and federally-protected wildlife, such as sea turtles," DeScherer said.

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