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Prospects brighten for ICW dredging

Congress jumps appropriation for the waterway, and more states seem amenable to helping out

Congress jumps appropriation for the waterway, and more states seem amenable to helping out

After seven years of advocating for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, ICW boosters finally are making headway in drawing attention to maintenance of the boater’s “Route 66.”

Like a highway with potholes, parts of the ICW are shoaled — in Georgia and South Carolina, in particular. The waterway, stretching 1,200 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Miami, needs regular dredging, and that requires regular funding, which has been in short supply lately.

“We’re starting to see some better state involvement with the waterway now,” says David Roach, chairman of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, a private association of businesses, trade groups and boaters with a stake in the ICW. The AIWA also is working on developing a reliable annual source of federal funding for dredging — a tough sell, Roach admits.

He wants to tap into federal marine fuel-tax money currently disbursed to the Inland Water Trust Fund — mainly for Mississippi River lock repairs — and to the Wallop-Breaux Trust Fund — for sportfish restoration, boating safety, pumpout grants and waterway access. Recreational fuel-tax dollars amount to about $365 million annually.

“It goes to a wide range of activities,” he says. “We’ve started talking to folks and suggesting that while that money is currently funding a lot of good things, if we can’t use the waterways are all those things really necessary? This is a priority issue we need to look at.”

Roach says the response so far has been lukewarm, but he plans to redouble his lobbying efforts this year. Work at the state level, however, has been more promising.

North Carolina has allocated $4 million to help maintain its stretch of the ICW, Roach says. The state has finished the first phase of a study of the waterway’s impact on its economy and found that it generates $500 million a year. “An [annual] investment of $2 million to $4 million by the state is certainly a good investment,” Roach says.

Georgia is starting to see dollar signs, too. Nudged by U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, the state’s Department of Transportation is contracting the University of Georgia to do a $16,000 ICW economic impact study this year, Roach says. GDOT also has advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal dredging agency, that it is ready to partner with it and assist it in funding ICW dredging in Georgia.

“The agreement hasn’t been inked yet, but Georgia has sent a letter to them saying they want to do it,” Roach says.

Florida, which established a navigation district for ICW maintenance in 1927, spends about $16 million a year on dredging. About $4 million of that is federal money; the rest is raised through a statewide property tax levy. The economic impact of Florida’s ICW is $1.8 billion — again, a good return on investment, Roach says.

This year, the AIWA hopes to get South Carolina looking at contributing to dredging projects along its stretch of the ICW. Currently South Carolina’s ICW is shoaled along the Myrtle BeachCanal, behind Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, on the DahooRiver near EdistoIsland, and at AsheIsland near St. Helena Sound, says Jimmy Hadden, the Engineers’ Charleston District project manager, in a report to the AIWA’s annual meeting in November at Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Georgia’s ICW is passable only at high tide at Fields Cut, Elba Cut and Hell’s Gate in Chatham County; Florida Passe in Liberty County; Creighton Narrows, Little Mud River and Altamaha Sound in McIntosh County; and Buttermilk Sound and Jekyll Creek in Glynn County, according to Brad Gane of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who spoke at the meeting.

Gane says the cost of dredging the Little Mud River, CreightonNarrows and Jekyll Creek alone to their authorized depth of 12 feet is $16 million, plus $2 million to $4 million annually for maintenance dredging. Bringing the South Carolina ICW up to its 12-foot authorized depth will cost $10 million to $12 million, plus $3.5 million to $4.5 million annually for maintenance dredging, according to Hadden.

“Georgia is a real critical area,” says Roach. “They haven’t received any federal money [for dredging] for five to seven federal budgets.”

At its annual gathering, AIWA decided to keep pursuing in 2008 its two big goals for 2007: spurring state action and funding for ICW dredging and securing dedicated federal funding for dredging.

“Everyone recognizes that Congress is never going to come up with [ongoing] money for the ICW,” says Rick Lydecker of BoatU.S. and AIWA’s vice chairman. That’s why a dedicated fund — one that doesn’t have to be legislatively allocated every year — is necessary.

Total estimated cost of maintaining the ICW is $38 million a year. AIWA wants the state and federal governments to split those costs 50-50 in a “true partnership.” “Nineteen million dollars isn’t that much for the federal government,” Roach says. Yet the Army Corps — which has a lot more proposed projects on its plate than money to fund them — must judge the viability of dredging projects based primarily on their benefit to commercial, not recreational, navigation, Roach says.

President Bush has set a threshold of 1 billion gross tons of commodities flowing along a waterway before the Engineers can consider it for a major dredging project, according to Hadden.

Recreational traffic on the ICW — cruisers and local boaters — is “huge,” says Lydecker, but the Army Corps can’t consider that when designating a waterway for long-term maintenance. “They can only consider commercial cargo,” he says.

The president’s 2008 budget allocated $6.5 million for ICW dredging, and on Dec.19 Congress passed a compromise $555 billion Omnibus Budget Package that included $13.3 million for AIW funding — $5.49 million for North Carolina, $2.18 million for South Carolina, $1.87 million for Georgia and $3.74 million for Florida. The president signed the bill Dec. 27. A victory for dredging, the funding still is just a one-time appropriation. Roach says the AIW needs a dedicated funding source so dredging money is there every year.

Other AIWA goals include:

• Get the Engineers to compile the results of ICW depth surveys on a Web site in an easily readable, graphic format so boaters can see exactly where channels are shoaled and whether they can get through by skirting those shallow areas. Roach says if AIWA can raise the money, it might do that itself. “It’s a project we’d be willing to take on,” he says.

• Grow AIWA’s membership to include tourism and real estate associations, chambers of commerce and other non-marine businesses and groups that benefit from their location along the ICW.

• Help the states along the ICW figure out how to raise money for dredging. He doubts that other states can do what Florida did 71 years ago and levy a property tax, but they could raise the money through user fees — an add-on to boat registration fees.

In boater surveys in North Carolina, Roach says a large majority of respondents say they would be willing to spend up to $90 annually for a better-maintained waterway. “That amazed all of us,” he says.

If each registered North Carolina boater actually paid that, Roach says the state could raise millions annually for its waterways. “That’s a great way to maintain the waterway,” he says. Money also could go toward building launch facilities, public marinas and fishing piers. “You can do these things hand-in-hand with dredging.”