WRDA - We really desire authorization

Published on Monday, July 29, 2013

By Pam Zaresk and Steve Kicklighter

There is currently a bill in the US House of Representatives whose impact on South Carolina cannot be overstated.  Known as WRDA (Water Resources Development Act), we should all start referring to it as We Really Desire Authorization.

Why, you ask?  Because WRDA is the authorization vehicle required to deepen Charleston’s harbor and help ensure our state’s future prosperity.  A federal authorization is mandatory before any monies can be appropriated or expended on the actual deepening.  Its importance is no exaggeration. 

Close to $60 billion in goods travel across our roads, railways, and docks every year, with exports to 197 countries across the globe accounting for over $25 billion of that amount.  These goods and associated activities have an annual $45 billion economic impact on our state and directly contribute to 1 in every 11 jobs throughout South Carolina.   This includes 112,000 jobs in the Upstate, 52,000 jobs in the Midlands, 30,000 jobs in the PeeDee, 9,600 jobs along with Savannah River, and over 31,000 jobs along the coast.  But ultimately, Charleston Harbor must get deeper to help assure continued growth in all of these regions.

South Carolina ports have been a key economic engine for over 300 years, but we must keep pace with the ever-evolving world of international trade – which demands 50-foot deep channels that can accommodate massive new ships that now carry 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).  To put that in perspective, in the 1980’s the largest ships carried 3500 TEUs and only needed a channel depth of 35-40 feet.

Thankfully, Charleston has naturally deep water – which is the trump card in international trade.  But while the Port of Charleston already boasts the deepest water in the region at 45 feet, a 50-foot channel is required to meet future shipping demands.  As one of the few ports that could handle these post-Panamax ships, as they are known, the Port of Charleston would be the envy of ports in the southeast - and vitally strategic for ocean carriers planning where to route their vessels, shippers establishing their supply chains, and site selectors locating port-dependent projects.  Coupled with the Inland Port, harbor deepening will facilitate a huge increase in new cargo traversing our state – resulting in waves of economic growth to every corner of South Carolina.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing its part and completed the project's reconnaissance study in the summer of 2010.  They found not only a federal interest in further deepening Charleston Harbor, but also that it is most likely the best value for scarce public dollars. The project is now in the feasibility phase, which is the final step required before being officially authorized.

As they say though, timing is everything.  In this high stakes game South Carolina needs the House to pass a WRDA bill this year – and include several vital provisions – namely a Contingency Authorization.  This contingency authorization will allow deepening projects such as ours to move forward if the required Army Corps’ feasibility study is approved within 5 years of WRDA passing. 

The concern is that while WRDA bills are supposed to be reauthorized every two years, there have been only two reauthorizations since 2000 – the most recent being 2007.   With a number of post-Panamax ships already in service, South Carolina needs to move straight into deepening mode once our feasibility report is complete in the fall of 2015.  With our General Assembly having the foresight to set aside $300 million for the actual deepening (which includes both the state match and federal portion if needed), a contingency authorization in WRDA is the only way to achieve deepening in the requisite timeframe.  A WRDA bill without this provision runs the very real risk of halting our deepening project for an indefinite period and stifling the accompanying economic growth throughout our state.

Two other provisions important to our future success include language changing the controlling depth for 100% federal maintenance share in shipping channels from 45 feet to 50 feet; and language to help small ports like Georgetown’s better compete for critical maintenance funds from the federal government.  These provisions go hand-in-hand with a modernized port infrastructure system, which WRDA seeks to achieve.

WRDA is an expansive, complicated bill that will always have detractors.  But the fact remains that shipping channels are a federal responsibility – and have been since 1789 when the federal government began authorizing navigation channel improvement projects.  The General Survey Act of 1824 established the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' role as the agency responsible for our navigation system.  As such, WRDA is the only currently available means through which our state’s ports can be authorized for deepening and modernization. 

We cannot allow this vitally important bill to get mired in ideological debates that have become prevalent in Washington.  We applaud Senator Lindsey Graham for his support and leadership in getting WRDA through the Senate.  It’s now time for our House delegation to follow suit.

Anybody with an interest in the future prosperity of South Carolina should speak out in support of WRDA’s passage and let our Congressional Delegation know it actually stands for We Really Desire Authorization.

The Maritime Association of SC (MASC) is a non-profit trade association whose mission is to protect, promote and advocate for South Carolina’s ports and its maritime transportation sector.  Pam Zaresk is President of MASC; Steve Kicklighter serves as Chairman of the MASC Board.



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