On the Waterfront

New-Kathy-Bergren-Smith-Blog Canals need more depth

January 31, 2013

After a visit to Holland last fall, I began thinking about why there aren’t as many canals here and why we pay so little attention to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which extends from Cape Cod to southern Florida.

This brings the topic around to dredging. Former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, who was the chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission from 1969 to 1975, told me last week that only 30 percent of channels nationwide are dredged to their authorized depth. So it's not just the AIWW that needs help.

Take the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a 14-mile shortcut between the two bays. (A Dutch mapmaker conceived the C&D Canal in the 17th century.) Vessels that operate between Baltimore and Philadelphia can cut 256 nautical miles off the transit by using the canal. Last month, the Corps had to come up with $8.6 million in order to restore the approach to the canal back to its operating depth. This emergency dredging was not included in the $17 million annual budget.

Tugs and barges make up the majority of the traffic through the canal. According to the Corps, about 350 tugs and barges use the canal monthly.

A shallower draft is needed to ply the canal. As the Port of Baltimore courts larger containers ships with its new berth with a 50' draft, will the canal remain relevant? Or will it be relegated to shallow-draft barges and other traffic?

“Would Baltimore be the No. 1 auto port on the East Coast without the C&D? Probably not,” said Lawrence Johnson of the Maryland Port Administration.

The time saved by using the C&D shortcut is a selling point for ocean carriers that are visiting multiple ports. In order to stay competitive, Johnson says the depth must be maintained.

“We will be lucky to maintain the C&D at its authorized depth and width,” Bentley said.

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