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."
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION & INVOLVEMENT
- 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
- 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.