Dredging & Marine Construction

AIWA Seeks Continued Funding To Decrease Dredging Backlog

Catching up on a backlog of dredging takes time, but the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (AIWA) says progress is being made.

In 2016, the backlog for dredging along the waterway was $126 million. Now, it is an estimated $74.59 million, said Brad Pickel, the association’s executive director.

“Since 2016, we have bought down over $50 million in risk to the full marine highway system, so we are moving in the right direction,” Pickel said.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway extends more than 1,100 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Miami, Fla. It consists of natural inlets, saltwater rivers, bays and sounds as well as man-made canals. Congress authorized its creation in 1919, and construction on the waterway was complete in 1940.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is authorized to maintain the waterway at a depth of 12 feet for most of its length, but inadequate funding over several years prevented that level of maintenance. Now, according to a fact sheet from AIWA, shoaling has created hazardous conditions for waterway users with several sections having reduced depths. Some sections are less than 5 feet deep. Hurricanes in both 2017 and 2018 worsened conditions in some sections.

Set up in 1999, AIWA advocates on behalf of the waterway, working with Corps of Engineers districts along the waterway’s path to help move their needs forward for planning, design and engineering, dredging and dredge material management area maintenance for potential inclusion in the president’s budget, Congressional appropriations and the Corps Work Plan. The waterway is an existing federal project with no new construction needs, instead focusing on operations and maintenance, Pickel said.

The association is a not-for-profit association, and membership includes dredge companies, marinas, shipyards and government agencies. AIWA works on three years of funding at a time, implementing the work authorized by the fiscal year 2020 plan, working through the budget process to fund priorities for fiscal year 2021 plan (with congressional funding expected by October 1) and already planning for fiscal year 2022.

Looking at fiscal year 2021, AIWA has requested Congress to continue the practice of establishing individual allocations for operations and maintenance of navigation projects. Specifically, the association has asked for $75 million each for additional dredging needs for inland waterways; small, remote or subsistence navigation; and navigation within the Corps’ operations and maintenance budget. This is well above the nearly $6.2 million set aside for the waterway in the president’s fiscal year 2021 budget.

AIWA’s priority remains continuing to reduce the backlog of dredging, Pickel said. The association estimates it takes $49.5 million just to keep the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway maintained on an annual basis without eating into the backlog of work. The workload has been increased because of  hurricanes in recent years, he said. All five states along the waterway—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida—have been impacted by hurricanes since 2016, Pickel said, adding that despite the hurricane damage, the backlog of projects has decreased. Pickel called the backlog decrease “a remarkable achievement by our Corps partners.”

“The value of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is due to its interconnectivity across the entire region, so anywhere that we can reduce shoaling, we increase the amount of products that can be moved through that area,” Pickel said.

AIWA works with non-federal partners to increase funding for projects along the waterway. Designated federally as the M-95 marine highway, the waterway is important for the fast, efficient, cost-effective movement of goods through the waterway, as well as for national defense and homeland security, Pickel said. It is especially important for the transport of critical military fueling and supplies, he said. Additionally, it is a national recreational asset and often used by vessels that may encounter rough seas if they are forced to use the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes requiring Coast Guard assistance.

Much of the backlog of dredging work is in the Charleston (S.C.) district, where AIWA has estimated it would take $25 million to return the waterway to the authorized dimensions because of the backlog in maintenance. AIWA is supporting efforts for large-scale expansions of dredging material management areas and beneficial use of dredge material in South Carolina as well, Pickel said.

AIWA is also supportive of the Savannah (Ga.) district’s planning, engineering and design of new projects within the district. Pickel anticipated the district bidding those projects out later this year and beginning dredging to deal with natural shoaling by early 2021.

In Virginia, much of the work is not on dredging but instead on maintaining the locks, including the lock at Dismal Swamp in the Norfolk district, Pickel said. In North Carolina’s Wilmington district, dredging is a heavy focus, with stretches of waterway that see high commercial use delivering both agricultural and steel products. Toward the southern edge of the state, several shallow-draft inlets that open out to the ocean have filled in with sand where they cross the waterway and require dredging.

In Florida, efforts have included both dredging projects and dredge material management, including the building of a new dredging material management area near the Okeechobee Waterway that could be used for the waterway in future projects.

One of the state partners working closely with AIWA is the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), based in Jupiter, Fla. FIND is an independent taxing authority representing two counties on the east coast of Florida. It has purchased acquired rights to land for dredge materials management areas at 63 sites along the coast and is at work building those sites. The vast majority are upland sites, executive director Mark Crosley said, but he added that FIND deposits beach-compatible materials from dredging onto the state’s numerous beaches.

FIND has funded about 75 percent of the waterway’s improvements in Florida to date, although federal funds have helped dredge channels with increased sedimentation due to hurricanes.

Crosley noted that it costs about $15 million to maintain the intracoastal waterway along the East Coast, but the work supports investment of about $3 billion annually.
“We think it’s well maintained,” Crosley said of the state’s portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which is 12 feet deep and 125 feet wide until, south of Fort Pierce, it drops to a 10 foot depth. “We’re doing our best to maintain it as originally authorized and constructed,” he said.

In the end, Pickel said, although funding requests for the AIWA are broken up among the Corps districts, the association does its best to  keep the entire Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in mind, Pickel said, comparing the system to a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link.