That forecast from the Corps of Engineers set the stage for Wednesday’s 417-3 vote by the U.S. House approving legislation that authorizes the long-delayed deepening of Savannah Harbor from the existing 42 feet to 47 feet to accommodate supertankers arriving from the Panama Canal next year. The Senate passed its version of the bill 83-14 last May. A conference committee will have to work out the final provisions of the $8.2 billion Water Resources Reform and Development Act that authorizes numerous projects for dams, harbors, rivers and related work.
The importance of the bill showed in the unanimous vote for it by all 14 members of Georgia’s congressional delegation. Likewise, both senators voted for the Senate version. After the House sealed the deal, Sen. Johnny Isakson said the project will generate $174 million in yearly net benefits and create 11,554 jobs.
That’s on top of the huge economic impact now from the state’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals: supporting more than 352,000 jobs in the state, and generating $18.5 billion in annual income, $66.9 billion in revenue, and $2.5 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.
It has taken 16 years to get to this point. In 1997, plans were made to deepen the harbor to 45 feet. That triggered a string of environmental and marine biology studies, and in 2000 a coalition of environmental groups opposing the project went to federal court. Eight years later, the Corps of Engineers released its environmental impact study and recommended deepening the channel to 48 feet but met opposition from the South Carolina environmental control agency.
In April 2012, the Corps approved the deepening to 47 feet, and seven months later a federal district court judge brought all litigating parties into mediation. On April 17, 2013, a settlement was announced. Georgia officials agreed to pay out millions in mitigation. According to The State (S.C.) newspaper, the Georgia Ports Authority agreed to pay $18.5 million to South Carolina agencies for monitoring water quality and sturgeons, $5 million each to the S.C. Conservation Bank, Ducks Unlimited and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to protect wildlife habitat, a total of $15 million, plus $12.5 million to the Savannah River Restoration Board for conservation projects — and the GPA must retain $2 million in escrow or a letter of credit annually for 50 years to guarantee operation/maintenance of the oxygen injection system if the Corps fails to pay for it.
And, the State says, “The deal gives South Carolina groups the right to scuttle the agreement if devices to pump oxygen into the river don’t offset water quality damage caused by the construction.”
But maybe it will be smooth sailing for Georgia from now on.