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Tuesday, May 11, 2010 - 6:49am

Deep Impacts on Savannah Harbor

This fall, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is expected to detail how deepening the Savannah harbor will affect the environment.  Georgia wants the harbor deepened to serve larger ships sailing through the Panama Canal.  An early draft of the Corp's Environmental Impact Statement, or E.I.S., weighed 46 lbs. and was filled with some of the driest technical language you can imagine.

Fortunately, there recently was a "scenic tour" of expected E.I.S. highlights.  It was substantially less challenging than the massive government document.  Only, it wasn't called an E.I.S. tour.  Hardly anyone would know what it meant.  The public boat tour, four hours long, ended up being just that, however.  It also was notable because the hosts, the Georgia Ports Authority and the Georgia Conservancy, often don't see eye-to-eye on environmental matters.

"Welcome, I'll be your captain on board today," greeted Michael Neal of Bull River Cruises, as 30 passengers filed onto his boat, the Island Explorer.  "We're going to be traveling through the Savannah River."

The pontoon boat was the size of a large Winnebego.  We left the historic waterfront on our way to our first stop, the sprawling port.  A huge container ship towered over us there.

"The MSC Melissa is 998 feet long and 132 feet beam," explained Hope Moorer of the Georgia Ports Authority.  "So, it can't fit through the Panama Canal.

Like many ships today, the Melissa is so big, it can't stop in Savannah fully-loaded.  So, it costs more for the shipper to come here.  If Savannah wants to remain competitive, keeping jobs in Georgia, officials say, the river we're on will have to be dredged lower than its 42 feet.  Expect the E.I.S. to say, if you do that, more saltwater will come upriver.

The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge's Jane Greiss says, that means freshwater marsh will turn into saltwater marsh.  "I've had people say, 'Well, what's the big deal about whether it's a salt marsh or a fresh marsh?  It's still marsh," says Greiss.  "Well, the big deal is that on a salt marsh, there's about six or eight plant species associated with it, if you're lucky.  On a tidal freshwater marsh, more than 60 plants have been recorded.  And then, of course, you have all the associated invertibles, wildlife and bird species.  There's such a small area of tidal freshwater marsh that we're trying to preserve what's left."

Greiss' portion of the tour eases past the wildlife refuge, 29,000 peaceful acres of lowlands near the port.  The E.I.S. is expected to call for re-routing sections of the Savannah River so more freshwater stays in the refuge.  The pontoon boat enters one such section, McCoy's Cut, a narrow, man-made canal, swirling with dark, fast-moving water.

"You can see with the tide going out, the water's coming this way, when you want it to go that way," Greiss says.  "The intent is to get more fresh water down the Back River.  To keep the fresh water from coming back out there, they're going to close it off right in here."

And that's just one potential effect and one potential remedy the E.I.S will highlight.  Expect the document also to address endangered fish, deprived of oxygen in a deeper ditch.  The E.I.S. could call for millions of dollars to fix these issues.  When it comes out, expect a furious debate over the fixes.

At the end of the tour, Savannahian Barbara Shockey says, she's now better prepared for that debate.  "This is absolutely beautiful here," Shockey says.  "And I had no idea it was fresh water up here."  "Does this give you a greater appreciation for the impacts of harbor deepening?" I ask.  "Absolutely," she replies.  "I'm concerned about the fish, the ecosystem and the birds."

Savannah resident Jim Smith says, he hopes the E.I.S. will achieve a balance between business needs and the marsh's future.  "We need to make sure we have a healthy economy in this area," Smith says.  "However, you gotta make sure we don't screw this area up."

A few passengers said, the harbor should be left as is.  "We shouldn't seek middle ground, but high ground," said Paul Wolff, a member of Tybee Island City Council.

But Will Berson of the Georgia Conservancy says, he's past the question, to deepen or not.  The politics are behind deepening.  He just wants a good E.I.S.  "The Georgia Conservancy is interested in seeing both the estuary and the port thrive," Berson says.  "Ultimately, we believe the success of the mitigation is what's going to be the measure of that."

The fall release of the Environmental Impact Statement could be the most anticipated document Savannah has waited for for many years.  Officials want the harbor deepened by 2014, when larger ships will sail through Panama.

Click this link for more information about harbor deepening.