ICW Dredging

By Ryck Lydecker

Good news: Waterway maintenance is up as new ideas stretch shrinking funding. Even better news: They're finally dredging in Georgia!

Dredger on the Intracoastal WaterwayNew dredging projects on the Intracoastal Waterway will have a positive economic impact for many marinas and small businesses that host boaters.

Every boater has probably heard the expression "Rust never sleeps," which is really a call to continually sustain maintenance. This same warning is also easily applied to the waterways and channels where we use our boats. Our version of this proverb could be "sediment is always waking us up," because shoaling is a chronic problem in waterways and small harbors (think Great Lakes), even for shallow-draft recreational vessels.

In few places is this situation more evident than along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the iconic "boater's Route 66," commonly called the ICW (aka "the Ditch"), where mud shoals and sandbars build up in channels as maintenance dollars for dredging ebb and flow. But they've mostly ebbed for years now. One section along the 1,089-mile route from Norfolk, Virginia, to Miami has such a consistently poor reputation that many cruisers avoid it altogether — the 161 miles that weave through islands and marshes of coastal Georgia. But that's about to change.

"The first dredging that we've seen since at least 2009 in some of the worst ICW reaches that southbound cruisers have to navigate is due to start in October," reports David Kennedy, senior manager for BoatUS Government Affairs. "At low water in Fields Cut, just above the South Carolina/Georgia line, the draft gets down to 3 feet. But dredging there, and at three other notoriously shallow sections in the first 25 miles through Georgia, should correct those problems over fall and winter."

A bit farther south, Elba Sound, South Channel, and Hell Gate reaches of Georgia's ICW are infamous sections that discourage some snowbirds from attempting the Georgia run at all, but things are looking up. In fact, the funding tide is actually rising, not just in the Peach State, but also throughout much of the ICW, according to federal officials. And the good news is that it's not just more money to do the same old dredging thing, but opportunities for innovation.

An Ill Wind

"Overall funding had been improving on the waterway in all areas over the last year or so, and then we got hit by Hurricane Matthew last October," reports Dylan Davis, coastal program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (USACE) South Atlantic Division. "That was a tragedy, obviously, but we were able to get more than $30 million in emergency funding for storm-damage repairs throughout the waterway, so it's been a big shot in the arm for us moving into fiscal year 2018.

"In Georgia, with some of that funding, we're actually taking the opportunity to think outside the box," Davis adds. "We recognize, through history, that's not a sustainable section of waterway because of the high shoaling rates and limited places to put the dredged material. And that makes maintenance there very expensive." Davis reports that the agency is "doing some cool, innovative things" by working with other USACE regions, particularly the North Atlantic Division, on a disposal technique called thin-layer placement.

"Basically that means side-cast dredges will be able to spray this very fine sediment material over the adjacent marshes," Davis says. "It's being done by our people successfully elsewhere, and the technique allows the marsh to gradually absorb the sediment rather than be smothered by it."

Applied in thin layers, the sediment becomes an asset to the surrounding ecosystem in the face of today's double whammy: marsh subsidence and sea-level rise. Thus, he says, in south Georgia's chronic, fine-sediment shoaling trouble spots like Jekyll Creek and Little Mud River, which have no suitable containment areas, the hope is that the answer to one problem will turn into a solution for another.

Georgia Not On My Mind

Deeper water in coastal Georgia can't come soon enough for many of the marinas and small businesses that serve the estimated 13,000 cruisers coming through every year, because an increasing number seem to be bypassing this portion of the ICW entirely.

"If the boats come in to Hilton Head [South Carolina] and dock for the night, they will jump outside because they're scared of Georgia. They don't want to run aground," says Bubba Strickland, manager of Hogan's Marina in Savannah, a BoatUS Cooperating Marina. "That's a problem for us because we're missing a lot of revenue dollars, and for them because they're missing everything Savannah has to offer.

"Or they might jump outside at Beaufort, South Carolina, and cruise straight down to Jacksonville or St. Augustine," he adds, "but that can put inexperienced people out in some weather they're not expecting and can't handle, and that's dangerous."

Commercial tug and barge operators who depend upon the ICW try to work the tides to transit southern Georgia's thinnest spots. But for them, it's a matter of scale.

"To us, silt is not dangerous," says Bos Smith, operations manager for Stevens Towing of Yonges Island, South Carolina. "We've got the power and the propellers, and the cooling systems are designed for it. I push it in front of me like it's thick water. Small boats don't have that power, so boaters get freaked out if they get in a silty, muddy mess like that. They think they are aground, but they aren't really." He adds that his company is also noticing more small boats going offshore to bypass southern Georgia, boaters who may not be prepared to be out in the ocean.

Florida Is Doing Fine

Once cruisers get through — or around — Georgia, they'll find that the ICW down Florida's east coast is well maintained for its entire 375 miles to the mouth of the Miami River, including the ocean inlets that connect to waterway channels. That's because of a unique local government partnership that has generated dredging dollars through a modest property-tax assessment in the counties through which the ICW passes. The program, which is administered by the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), dates to 1927 and can provide matching monies for USACE projects, too.

"The ICW in Florida is looking pretty good, although there's one section around Nassau Sound that's a bit problematic," reports Mark Crosley, executive director of FIND. "But dredging there is scheduled for late fall, so it shouldn't be a problem much longer."

Crosley says southbound boaters who might choose to go offshore will find that the ocean inlets like Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine have just been dredged.

"One of the values of the waterway in Florida is that it's got those ocean inlets, but the problem for us is they're our biggest sediment source," he adds. "We have a high-energy coast here and have to dredge the inlets every three to four years. But the good news is that our taxing authority allows us to keep up with it."

Crosley, chairman of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, points north to Georgia and says, "The fact that the Corps will be dredging those really shallow trouble spots and that they're finding innovative ways to do it is really a win-win for all of us. Certainly for the snowbirds headed our way." 

Contributing editor Ryck Lydecker, a member of our BoatUS Government Affairs team, also served on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association board of directors for 14 years, including a term as chairman.

— Published: October/November 2017

Winning Waterway Team To Meet In November

An unlikely coalition of waterway users can take a lot of the credit for the rising tide of funding to deepen the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Formed in 1998, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (AIWA) is an alliance of commercial navigation operators, coastal engineering companies, dredging contractors, and recreational boating industry organizations (BoatUS is a charter member) plus marinas, shipyards, and local governments along the waterway, bolstered by individual cruising boaters who come from 39 states and Canada. Its overriding mission: Keep the waterway working. But there's a multifaceted strategy behind that deceptively simple goal.

"We advocate on Capitol Hill to ensure the federal funding required every year to maintain 1,100 miles of channels threading through the five south Atlantic states; that's a given," says David Kennedy of BoatUS, who serves as AIWA secretary. "But we also focus on the policymakers and legislators in each of those states to strengthen local support for what we can show is an unparalleled economic asset for each state, but also of great historical, environmental, and cultural significance to the region."

In fiscal year 2016, AIWA convinced Congress to increase waterway funding by a whopping 90 percent over what had been proposed in the president's budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that year.

A key tool in the AIWA kit is its annual conference. Equal parts retrospective, strategy session, and celebration, the meeting brings a cross section of waterway business interests — from tug operators and marina owners to coastal planners and marine economists — together with USACE professionals, officials from local and state government, plus additional federal agencies that have a role on the waterway, like the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA. The conference location rotates among the five states, and this year it's set for Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, November 15–16.

Go to atlanticintracoastal.org for 2017 conference details as well as AIWA membership information. (Individual boater member annual dues cost $25.)


Dismal Swamp Canal

Cruising boaters should be happy to know the Great Dismal Swamp historic canal that runs between Norfolk, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, is projected to be open again to vessel traffic in the fall. Closed since October 2016 due to damage from Hurricane Matthew, the 22-mile canal is an alternate route (but shallower, at only 6 feet) between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. The iconic canal dates back to 1793 and George Washington.


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