Dredging Crisis

Each foot of available draft means the ship is leaving behind cargo. The largest lakers forfeit almost 3,200 tons of cargo of each foot of reduced draft.

Decades of inadequate funding for dredging have left an estimated 15 million cubic yards of sediment clogging the Great Lakes Navigation System and the impacts of the dredging crisis are felt every day. The amount of cargo that's left behind because vessels can’t load their designed capacity varies with the size of the vessel. When record low water levels amplified the lack of dredging, such as in early 2013, the largest vessels forfeited as much as 15,000 tons, or 20 percent of their per-trip carrying capacity. If the vessel is carrying iron ore for the steel industry, 15,000 tons is enough product to make the steel in 12,500 cars, the production of which would keep a large auto plant in operation for nearly six weeks.

The dredging crisis is man-made. Cargo is taxed and the receipts deposited in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The HMTF typically takes in more than $1.6 billion per year, but historically was spending only about half of that amount per year on dredging. Even with recent annual HMTF spending reaching $1.2 billion, the HMTF has a surplus of nearly $9 billion.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 set a new course, one, that if followed, will end the dredging crisis on the Lakes. The legislation requires the federal government to incrementally increase expenditures from the HMTF until they reach 100 percent of receipts in 2025. The Lakes automatically get 10 percent of that annual increase. Another key provision in the bill was the designation of the Great Lakes as a system in terms of maintenance dredging. No more would the federal government pit the 60 ports it maintains against one another for dredging dollars, but rather view them collectively, a move that puts the Lakes on a more even footing with the inland rivers and other regions of the country.

The appropriation process is an annual undertaking, so LCA is working diligently to ensure that expenditures from the HMTF are increased each year as required.

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