CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) A few years ago, Capt. Jim Donnelly didn’t think the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway could get any worse.
His tugboat was running aground regularly as the federal government allowed the waterway to silt in, ignoring its own law that requires a 12-ft. channel at low tide.
Then, on a trip through Charleston a few months back, Donnelly saw just how much worse it’s gotten.
“Just north of the Ben Sawyer Bridge, I saw people wading across the Intracoastal Waterway,” Donnelly said.
In the past three years, commercial traffic on the waterway has dried up even more. Many captains won’t travel the route anymore and consider it closed south of Morehead City, N.C.
Some of the larger recreational boats that travel the coast have been forced offshore into the more dangerous, and unpredictable Atlantic.
Now, after six straight years of budget cuts, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is barely more than a third the depth it should be. Unless something changes soon, the East Coast’s maritime highway could become the nautical equivalent of a dirt road, grounding $10 billion in commercial and recreational commerce and cutting off some of Charleston’s supply of fuel, building materials and transit-boat business.
“It’s getting worse out there,” said Benjamin “Bos” Smith, operations manager of Stevens Towing. “It’s like having a road — if you don’t maintain it, you can’t use it.”
Since 2001, the Bush administration has slashed most money to the waterway by using a funding formula that doesn’t consider recreational traffic.
Counting only commercial traffic, much of which has been forced offshore by shoddy conditions in “The Ditch,” the waterway doesn’t qualify for dredging and maintenance money.
Danny Pelletier, a deckhand on the Island Express stands at the end of barges as they are beached on a barrier island in Lockwoods Folly after the tug they were attached to ran aground.
The waterway, which is made up of natural and man-made channels, is open to the ocean at countless inlets and requires constant dredging to fight off the accretion and erosion caused by the tides. A lack of funding leads to shallower channels, which lead to less traffic, which proves the argument for cutting the money. It is the classic Catch-22, say the tug operators and officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the waterway.
“There’s just no way we can compete with the Mississippi River,” said Jimmy Hadden, the Corps of Engineers local project manager for the waterway. “Basically, we’ve been getting caretaker money. I’ve probably got a 4-ft. controlling depth.”
That means at low tide, there are spots along the channel that are 4 ft. deep. Corps officials have estimated that the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which runs 1,200 mi. from Norfolk, Va., to Miami, needs more than $100 million in work.
The limited work that has been done on the waterway since 2001 has come from congressional additions to the budgets. For South Carolina, that has amounted to an average of approximately $800,000 a year. It’s been enough to monitor the problem and spray for mosquitoes but little else. The last dredging project was done near Georgetown in 2005.
This year, the Senate version of the federal budget includes $3.8 million, and the House and the president’s versions of the budget include $872,000.
Donnelly said that for his tug, the Island Express, to make a waterway trip, his barges must have shallower drafts than they used to. A few years ago, the tug could make the trip up the coast with barges that had a 9-ft. draft. Now, they can only load to a 7.5-ft. draft.
“That’s a big difference when you get paid by the ton,” Donnelly said.
Even if South Carolina can get money to make a dent in the dredging, it does little good without other states getting the same. The Corps of Engineers says that the waterway needs to be considered one project, instead of making each state fend for itself.
Georgia hasn’t had any dredging in about six years, according to waterway supporters, and behind Jekyll Island, the channel is mostly mud at low tide. If not for a military fuel barge that still makes the run, pushing mud the whole way, the waterway would probably be gone there.
Of course, South Carolina is not far behind.
If something doesn’t change soon, Smith said, it may not be just his tugboats and other commercial traffic that can’t get through.
“We only go through the waterway behind Breach Inlet on a rising tide,” Smith said. “It’s getting so bad that before long, a sailboat won’t be able to get through. We’ve just got to ask ourselves: Is this a valuable resource or not?”