Full Funding for Dredging Great Lakes Deep-Draft Ports and Waterways

June 16, 2020 LCA

The Great Lakes navigation system must be adequately funded for dredging through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF).  A full 12 percent of annual HMTF funding nationwide should be directed toward Great Lakes deep-draft ports and connecting channels to maintain federally mandated dimensions and optimize maritime cargo transit on the lakes.

There are 60 federally maintained deep-draft ports on the Great Lakes and their connecting waterways that create the single maritime transportation system that is the foundation of U.S. manufacturing, infrastructure, and energy production and opens the U.S. Great Lakes ports to the world.

Dredging in the federal navigation channels is a responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Decades of inadequate funding for dredging the Great Lakes left more than 13 million cubic yards (MCY) of sediment clogging ports and waterways. Only recently has that been addressed and today we are down to 10.3 MCY.  But keep in mind, this backlog of dredging is not to the federally authorized dimensions. It is to what is minimally needed to keep commercial vessel traffic moving, so-called “functional dimensions.”  This was agreed upon by vessel operators and the Army Corps to prioritize limited resources.  Nowhere else in the nation is “functional” used or acceptable.  Dredging to the federally authorized dimensions easily requires three times more material to be dredged, perhaps 30+ MCY.  Each year the Army Corps figures they need to remove at least 3.3 MCY to keep typical sediment loading in check, without even eating into that backlog.  Some years they get funding to do that and some years they do not.

Even with the historically high-water levels in the Great Lakes, dredging is crucial to keep vessels moving and with access to the many ports located at the mouths or somewhere upstream in the rivers.  Sediment loads with heavy rains and seasonal snow melt can easily choke these vital waterways.  The Rouge River in Detroit, the Maumee and Cuyahoga rivers in Ohio, the Fox River in Green Bay, and the Duluth-Superior Harbor are all examples where dredging must continue through high and low water.

Sediment left on the lake and river bottoms means cargoes are left at the dock when vessels are unable to load to the design depths of the system, called “light loading.”  This can mean as much as 270 tons of iron ore on a U.S.-flag vessel is not carried for each inch of draft lost when Great Lakes waterways are not adequately dredged.

Lack of available funding should never have been a reason for lack of adequate dredging.  The federal government taxes maritime cargo and the receipts are deposited in the HMTF.  The HMTF collects more revenue from shippers than Congress has typically appropriated for the Army Corps to maintain our harbors. $9.3 billion, as of October 2019, sits idle in the U.S. Treasury, not being used for its intended purpose of investing in our Nation’s ports and harbors.

Dredging is paramount to keeping 160 million tons of cargo, valued at $15 billion, moving each year on the Great Lakes in commercial ships.  The U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet alone moves 90 million of those tons mostly between U.S. ports.  A 2018 study titled, “Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Region” determined that waterborne commerce on the Great Lakes generated more than 147,000 U.S. jobs in the eight Great Lakes states, $10.5 billion in personal income, $20.3 billion in business revenue, $5.3 billion in local purchases, and $4.6 billion in federal and state taxes.  Another study conducted concluded that the Great Lakes navigation system supports approximately 400,000 export-related jobs in the U.S.  The Army Corps estimates that transportation rates savings generated by the Great Lakes Navigations System is $3.9 billion.

Keeping our waterways open and maintained keeps commerce reliant on maritime transported goods operating efficiently, safely, and successfully.  Lake Carriers’ asks that the $9.3 billion in the HMTF be disbursed, annual distributions should include a minimum floor for funding Great Lakes projects of 12 percent, and that the true backlog of dredging based on the federally authorized dimensions, versus functional dimensions, be calculated and used in prioritizing work.

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