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Silt choking the East Coast boater’s I-95

Advocates pressure states to help pay for ICW dredging before shoaling forces more out into the ocean

Advocates pressure states to help pay for ICW dredging before shoaling forces more out into the ocean

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a maritime highway, in some respects like Interstate 95. It allows vessel traffic to travel along the East Coast from Norfolk, Va., to the Florida Keys without the dangers of going out into the ocean. This is important to the commercial vessel operators and pleasure boaters who use it, as well as to everyone else because of environmental and economic issues. But much of it now is smothering in silt.

The project depth for the Atlantic ICW between Norfolk, Va., and Fort Pierce, Fla., is 12 feet MLW, then 10 feet MLW to Miami. The ICW has been maintained by dredging contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers, but within the past several years, budget cuts by the federal government have decimated the dredging program, leaving many parts of the waterway impassable for the typical user except at midtide and higher. Because shoaling is a continuous process, any delay in dredging drastically increases the problem. Once a shoal begins to build, it has a tendency to collect sediment faster and faster as it blocks, slows and changes the flow of water.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association was formed in 1999 to spearhead efforts to save the ICW. Its focus has included congressional lobbying for more funds, organization of affected business interests, and public education. In the past few years it’s also been working to get the states and communities through which the ICW passes to contribute money and seek congressional support to keep their portions of the waterway dredged.

One of those states, Florida, has been doing this for some time. The Florida Inland Navigation District uses funds from an ad valorem tax paid by property owners in waterfront areas and has been very active in maintaining the state’s ICW. It also has created environmental enhancement and protected areas in the process, using dredged materials for barrier islands and to create protected parks.

North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, however, have had no such program. (The shoaling hasn’t been as severe in Virginia’s short section of the ICW because its utilization by large commercial vessels results in better maintenance.) North Carolina has suffered shoaling so serious that water access to some villages and inlets has been curtailed. Its ICW sector has received some federal dredging funds, though far from enough. Various organizations within the state now are seeking a solution. A funded study has documented the adverse economic impact and even found a willingness among many boaters to chip in for dredging costs.

In November, the AIWA held its annual meeting in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and executive director Rosemary Lynch says some 60 people from related industries and other sectors attended. They established as priorities for 2007 that Congress must create a dedicated funding source for ICW dredging and maintenance, that there should be a comprehensive economic assessment of the waterway, and that the general public, especially in the states and communities that border the waterway, must gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the economic, historic and sociological values of the ICW.

Lynch says that, based on data from the Department of Transportation in 2006, $4.8 billion was appropriated for maintenance of the 46,876-mile interstate highway system, or around $102,370 per highway mile. To return the ICW to its authorized depth would cost about $30 million, or $27,270 per mile for its 1,100 miles. To give further perspective, an “Economic Impact of Interstate Highways in Kentucky” study by Eric E. Thomson and Amitobh Chandra found it cost $10 million to $15 million per mile to build an interstate there. It’s important to note that if normal ICW maintenance dredging were conducted, far less per year would be needed.

Table A, with figures from the AIWA Web site (, shows what’s needed to restore the ICW and what’s been budgeted.

The AIWA stresses that maintenance of the waterway benefits all sectors of the population. For example, a study by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy found that waterway transport of cargo is the least expensive, produces the least pollution, and is safer than highway transport. One study showed that, on average, one barge can carry as much cargo as 58 trucks. To get the picture, compare a tanker truck full of gasoline or chemicals hurtling down a crowded interstate in a crowded urban area to a very slow-moving barge, buffered from the masses by miles of marsh and woods.

The closure of the ICW will have a serious adverse effect on the environment in more subtle ways. Table B from the AIWA shows pollutants produced by three methods of bulk transport.

Flawed criteria

The lack of funding is exacerbated because flawed and unrealistic criteria are used to evaluate dredging projects. Commercial cargo tonnage is all that’s considered; dollars to communities and businesses from the huge pleasure boat usage aren’t factored into the equation. Ryck Lydecker, BoatU.S. assistant vice president for government affairs, put it succinctly in a 2002 report in BoatU.S. magazine: “If it can’t be packed and shipped, it doesn’t count.”

Jack Dozier, publisher of the “Waterway Guide” cruising books, was one of those at the AIWA meeting. He says the tonnage criterion not only overlooks the financial loss to localities and businesses, it presents a classic Catch-22. As the ICW becomes shallower, fewer boats will be able to use it, thus less tonnage will be counted. As less tonnage is counted, fewer dollars will be allocated for dredging. He urges boaters to write to their representatives in Congress (addresses are on the AIWA site) and for local governments to get involved.

“The ICW isn’t just a creek or river in someone’s back yard; it’s part of an integrated public transportation system,” says Lydecker. “The failure of one part affects all.”

On scene

We’ve been cruising the ICW for more than 30 years and recently finished another trip from Norfolk to Florida. Today, tugboat captains talk of plowing when they speak of moving. Many boats must wait for half-tide and better to go through shallow spots; some cannot transit them at all. A large number of boaters are now skipping Georgia and other sections entirely, going outside.

Going outside in the ocean often involves long waits for weather and increased danger. Weather can turn bad despite a good forecast. If you’re outside when this happens, you must negotiate an inlet to gain safety. Many inlets, particularly in Georgia, aren’t safe in the best of conditions. Sometimes those who go out don’t come back, and we expect to see more of this if the situation isn’t improved.