U.S. Ports Modernize While Water Supply and Quality Deteriorate

Savannah container terminal is a modern maritime showcase; Savannah River gets dirtier.

Savannah Georgia port Garden City terminal shipping containers world trade harbors

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
Georgia’s Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation’s fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $US 758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Click image to enlarge.

SAVANNAH, Georgia — There’s not much about water infrastructure that gets America’s lawmakers excited these days unless it’s a big coastal port.

The New York/New Jersey port, with a big assist from the federal government, is spending $US 1.3 billion to lift the 84-year-old Bayonne Bridge high enough to allow a new generation of super-sized cargo vessels to pass underneath. Charleston, South Carolina, with state and federal support, is spending $US 2 billion to deepen its harbor and expand port facilities. Miami has a project of comparable size to do the same thing.

Here in Savannah, where ocean-going ships have arrived and departed since the city was founded in 1733, Georgia and its Congressional delegation collaborated to direct $US 758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the nation’s fourth-largest container port. Over the next decade, say port executives, an additional $US 1.4 billion is in the port’s capital budget, including $US 706 million to deepen the harbor and the Savannah River.

In all, spending on capital improvements to U.S. ports has averaged $10 billion annually over the last decade, according to a 2014 study of infrastructure investment by PricewaterhouseCoopers. By 2025, U.S. port capital investments are projected to reach $US 20 billion annually, the study concludes.

In contrast, U.S. capital investments in water supply and wastewater treatment totaled around $2 billion annually over the last decade. By 2025, investments in water supply and treatment may reach $US 3 billion annually, says PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Another study of infrastructure spending in the United States, by the Congressional Budget Office, found similar disparities in spending for transportation and water infrastructure. In 2014, the CBO found, the U.S. invested $US 279 billion for roads, airports, mass transit, and ports. The same year, the country spent $109 billion on water supply and sanitation.

Uneven Funding

The difference in spending is obvious in Savannah and along the Savannah River, where the Garden City terminal is situated. With its new electric cranes, redesigned loading deck traffic patterns, and expanded intermodal train facilities, the terminal is a showcase marine import and export installation. The decade of investment in equipment and practices by Georgia and the federal government, which came in anticipation of handling more cargo from the expanded Panama Canal, has resulted in hundreds of new jobs at the terminal, and thousands more inside the 4.2 million square meters (45 million square feet) of logistics, storage, and distribution centers that surround the port.

Savannah Georgia port OALogistics Garden City terminal shipping containers world trade harbors

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
The OALogistics distribution center in Garden City, Georgia, is 63,000 square meters (679,000 square feet) of stacked boxes. Click image to enlarge.

The Savannah River, meanwhile, flows dirtier than ever just outside the Garden City docks. Scant investment in water quality infrastructure and lax enforcement of pollution standards has left Georgia’s third-longest river in a precarious condition. The most recent EPA Toxics Release Inventory, for instance, finds that only two other rivers — the Ohio River and the New River in West Virginia — have more hazardous chemicals being poured into them than the Savannah River.

The argument for port investment comes with a built-in advantage. It’s easy for port executives and lawmakers who hold the public purse strings to make the case that capital spending on maritime infrastructure is a competitive advantage that lead to more economic activity and jobs. The evolution of ocean transport is the story of the ever-increasing size and speed of the global maritime fleet. Ports that can’t serve the 1,100-foot container, cargo, and tanker ships plying the world’s oceans will die pretty quickly.

Apparently, legislatures in coastal states and members of Congress find no such certainty in the economic value of clean water. The frustrating consequences are twofold. First is that the improvement in the quality of the nation’s waters that the United States experienced in the first three decades after the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 has largely stopped. And second, in too many regions to count, water quality is deteriorating.

More sewage from old and inadequate wastewater treatment plants is pouring into rivers. Summer beach closures, caused by fecal contamination, are endemic in the United States. The most recent EPA report on the condition of coastal waters found plenty of foul streams, rivers, lakes, and harbors, and nothing to cheer about. Rivers today are regularly contaminated by big chemical, sewage, and oil spills. Lake Erie is so polluted by phosphorous, giving rise to toxic algae, that Toledo last year was forced to shut down its drinking water plant, which supplies 400,000 residents.

The nation’s waters are in perilous circumstances. Along with rising levels of contamination, droughts are drying up surface water supplies in Texas, California, and the Great Plains. At the same time, ground water levels are receding from California to the Midwest.

Very clearly, more expansion and modernization in America’s water supply and treatment infrastructure is warranted. With interest rates at historic lows, the timing could not be better, according to the International Monetary Fund, which found in a recent study that public infrastructure investment boosts GDP and ends up paying for itself. Economic damage to agriculture, manufacturing, energy production, and metropolitan economies hangs in the balance if the U.S. water wounds are left to fester.

New York New Jersey port authority shipping containers world trade New York harbor

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue
New York’s port is deep enough for the world’s largest ships. But the Bayonne Bridge needs to be raised to allow them to sail in, a project that is expected to cost $US 1.3 billion. Click image to enlarge.

Unfortunately, the new era of water scarcity and contamination, unlike the global shipping trade, has no deadline to motivate more investment. Port authorities are hustling to install upgraded facilities to handle the additional cargo that will start to flow through the Panama Canal next year. Yet the growing number of seismic hydrological events — the California and Texas droughts, the Lake Erie poison algae, big chemical and coal ash spills in West Virginia and North Carolina — have prompted comparatively modest regional, state, and national responses. Water problems just don’t generate the level of public clamor, for instance, that greeted Miley Cyrus’ 2013 introduction of twerking to a national audience.

At one time, during the 1970s and 1980s, Americans called for cleaner supplies of fresh water and the national government footed most of the bill for new sewage treatment plants. Through the construction grants program, U.S. taxpayers provided $US 60 billion ($US 180 billion in 2015 dollars) for new facilities. At its 1977 peak, more than 70 percent of all capital spending for drinking water and sewage infrastructure came from Washington, D.C., according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The grant program was phased out by 1990 and replaced with a smaller loan program. By 2010, the federal government’s share of capital spending for water infrastructure dropped to just one-sixth of total investment, or $US 8 billion, while state and local sources contributed $US 38 billion. Including operations and maintenance budgets, state and local agencies account for 95 percent of spending on water infrastructure, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In the era of austerity that has bound public investment for two decades, unleashing the level of spending required to address America’s water challenges depends on a huge change in social values and policy direction.

Undoubtedly, at some point America’s slipping water supply and quality will focus the nation’s attention. And when it does, the picture will be painful and more expensive. According to a new report by the Columbia Water Center, the latest evaluation of the condition of America’s water infrastructure, it will cost “from $US 1 trillion to $US 2 trillion over the next two decades to replace aging water infrastructure; but today, the all-but-free cost of water to users doesn’t even cover transportation, let alone processing and infrastructure maintenance.”

In other words, fixing much of the problem requires an investment of $US 100 billion annually by cities, states, the federal government, and water users. That’s a pittance — about half of one percent of GDP; three pennies out of $US 5 — in a nation with a $US 16 trillion gross domestic product. It’s $US 65 billion a year less than what the United States now spends each year to repair and modernize the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, rail networks, and ports, according to the CBO study. It’s spending that is worth every penny.

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