Assessment of Proposed Savannah Harbor Deepening Plagued by Risk & Uncertainty

Disputes over possible consequences of the proposed deepening of the Savannah harbor and channel have continued in recent months. Two major issues have been under particular scrutiny, compounding the difficulty of answering questions raised earlier.

The project is being reviewed under the guidance of the Stakeholder Evaluation Group (SEG), established last year by the Georgia Ports Authority to help meet obligations for public involvement in the decision-making process. The Center and several other environmental organizations are represented, as well as state and federal agencies in South Carolina and Georgia, port users, and the cities of Savannah and Tybee Island.

The first of the two major issues in question has to do with the adequacy of hydrological modeling that will be used to predict the effects of making the channel deeper and wider on such things as fish, wildlife, and shoreline structures. In April, Chuck Watson, a seasoned computer modeling expert, told SEG members that in his opinion the model being developed by GPA consultant ATM lacks precision in demonstrating three-dimensional attributes of the river. Accurate representation of the dynamics of water flow, including tidal movement, throughout the depth, width, and length of the channel will be essential to making reliable predictions about the project's impacts. Resources at risk from these impacts include striped bass, freshwater wetlands, and diverse wildlife habitat of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Many believe that nature-based businesses, shoreline structures, and flood-prone areas may also be adversely affected by this project.

A second fundamental question is about the relationship between channel deepening and the principal source of water supply from the ground - the Floridan aquifer. Until recently, geologists commonly thought of the strata of clay above the aquifer as a 'confining layer' that would prevent exchange of water above and below it. More recently, fractures discovered in the confining layer, where it is exposed at the surface further inland, have raised questions about the possibility of increasing risk of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer from the tidally-influenced lower Savannah River if further deepening occurs. Because such risks could significantly contribute to irreversible saltwater contamination of the area's major water supply source, this is an extremely critical issue.

In a related matter, the Center is one of four plaintiffs in a suit against the Corps of Engineers pertaining to the proposed harbor deepening project, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) earlier this year. At issue in the claim against the Corps is a report issued by the Chief of Engineers last fall, which gave a supporting recommendation for the proposed deepening even though no final Environmental Impact Statement had been prepared and no assessment of endangered species impacts was completed. The SELC claim documents several federal legal requirements that it alleges to have been violated by the Corps action. Although GPA is not a party in the suit, they have backed the Corps of Engineers in petitioning the federal court to dismiss the case on the basis of the SELC action being premature. They have also asked that the case be reassigned to a federal court in Georgia, instead of South Carolina where SELC filed it.

In making comments at SEG meetings, the Center's executive director has focused on the vital importance of recognizing the incomplete and inconclusive nature of our current state of understanding about the complex environment affected by the project. This view was also reflected in an editorial published in the Savannah Morning News where Mr. Kyler wrote, "Assessments supporting past harbor deepening projects do not yield confidence that the ultimate decision about this one will reflect true public interest. Until we squarely address the risks inherent in such activities, we cannot honestly evaluate their merit. In the meantime, these enormous projects will be little more than a 'crap-shoot' at the taxpayer's expense."

  • If you would like to attend an SEG meeting, please call Cathy Vaughn at the Georgia Ports Authority, (912) 964-3811, for scheduling information. GPA can also provide a list of SEG members, committee names, and information about locations and dates for committees meetings. Transcriptions of past SEG meetings are on file at GPA, as well as committee reports and other materials distributed to the group.
  • If you are interested in researching the background of this issue further, copies of the Tier I Environmental Impact Statement, the Economic Feasibility Report, and numerous comments submitted during the project's initial public review period are available as part of the public record. Call the Savannah District Office of the Corps of Engineers at 800-448-2402.
  • The Center also has numerous articles about the project on file, including several editorials by our executive director. A video clip of a television interview with Mr. Kyler about this issue is also available. Be sure to call the Center with your contact information if you want to join our Action Alert Network to stay informed on this and other critical coastal issues.
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