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Posted on: September 11, 2023

Maintaining Deep-Water Ship Channel a Non-Stop Job

By Rodger Rees, Galveston Wharves port director and CEO

The Port of Galveston is fortunate to be located on a deep-water ship channel with a federally authorized depth of 46 feet. Unfortunately, maintaining depths anywhere near that requires routine dredging – and that work is expensive.

Maintaining the health of our channel is critical to the success of this port and the private entities that operate here. More than 900 cruise, cargo and lay ships call on the Port of Galveston each year. Restricting cruise and cargo shipping activity by not adequately funding channel depths would have a huge negative impact on our regional and state economies, not to mention port revenues. 

The Galveston Harbor is ranked among the top 50 busiest channels in the nation based on cargo tonnage. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the federal portion of the channel, 12 million tons of cargo moved through the channel in 2021, ranking it 43rd among U.S. ports and waterways. That translates into millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs for our region.

Responsibility for maintaining the channel is split between the port and the federal government. The port maintains areas around its berths, while the Corps maintains the central, federally owned portion of the channel. 

Dredge, Dredge, Dredge

The port typically budgets more than $2 million a year to maintain depths of 35-45 feet in its portion of the waterway, from its berths to 115 feet into the channel. These funds come from port-generated operating revenues.

Cruise ships that sail from Galveston, including some of the largest in the world, have a maximum draft of 33 feet. Cargo ships that call on the port have maximum drafts of 44 feet, with the deepest-draft ships typically carrying dry and liquid bulk cargos. 

Silt continuously moves into the ship channel and settles. This can cause depths to change by several feet in just a few months. It requires continuous monitoring to ensure that we can accommodate the ships that call on our port.

We conduct hydrographic surveys semi-annually to measure channel depths, more often if issues arise. For example, last year we had to schedule a special dredging project in our turning basin east of Pier 10 to maintain required dimensions of 1,500 feet wide and 37 feet deep.

Once we dredge the silt, it’s stored in the port’s 100-acre dredge spoil area on Pelican Island. We maintain an earthen wall, or levee, around the site to contain the sludgy muck as it dries. 

In the last two decades the port has placed more than 7 million cubic yards in the spoil area. Unfortunately, the dried dredge material has no practical uses due to its composition of fine silt and other materials. 

We’ve seen accelerated rates of shoaling in recent years due to tidal flows, hurricanes and other factors. 

Federal Maintenance

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces similar challenges for its central, federally owned portion of the channel. 

In 2022 the Corps spent more than $20 million to bring the 800-foot-wide channel to its authorized depths. The huge project included dredging and raising levees in federal spoil areas on Pelican Island and behind the eastern tip of the seawall to accommodate spoils.  

Less than a year later, shoaling has reduced the depth at the entrance of the Galveston Harbor, restricting the entire harbor to ship drafts of no more than 42 feet.  

For 2024, the Corps requested $30.6 million in federal funding for maintenance but received only $8.9 million.

The bottom line is we need more local, state and federal funds to maintain the health of our ship channel and, thus, our port. A working group of stakeholders, including representatives from the port, the Corps, ship pilots, and private entities, is meeting to address these challenges. 

I’m hopeful that our decision-makers in the state and U.S. capitals realize the huge return on investment that maintaining critical waterways like the Galveston Harbor generate and allocate more funding to maintain our channels.

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