With its funding perpetually short, port of Houston battles to maintain shipping channel depth !
Occasionally, ship pilot Paul Bartholmey hits a speed bump in the Houston Ship Channel as he navigates vessels down the waterway that snakes from Galveston to just east of downtown Houston.
Rainwater carries silt into the channel, reducing its targeted depth in spots. The silt can create a hump on the floor of the channel high enough to rub on a vessel's keel.
When that happens, Bartholmey and his counterparts contact the Houston Pilots' dispatch office so it can warn pilots to slow down approaching the sandy speed bump until a dredging company can suck the silt out of the channel and restore it to its designated depth.
"Usually you find it by trial and error," said Bartholmey, one of 91 pilots who guide oceangoing ships to Houston docks and back out to sea.
The channel has to be deep enough so vessels can transit the channel fully laden with containers, petroleum and other cargo. It costs shippers money if draft restrictions force them to carry less, and that can prompt shipping lines to send their ships to deeper-water ports, many of which are naturally deeper.
"The dredging is vital to our economy," Bartholmey said as he piloted the Madrid Express container ship in the channel on a recent afternoon. "It's a man-made channel. You have to keep it up."
The Ship Channel - comprising the downstream end of Buffalo Bayou and a path through Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico - was as little as 6 feet deep when the Allen Brothers started promoting Houston in the 1830s. In 1914, the channel was deepened to 25 feet and since then much of it was deepened to 45 feet.
To maintain that depth, Army Corps of Engineers contractors must dredge the channel regularly.
But Congress normally appropriates too little for the corps to maintain the channel at its required depth.
In fiscal year 2010, the corps needed $36.3 million for maintenance dredging and Congress appropriated $19 million, according to the Port of Houston Authority, which works with the corps to deepen and maintain the channel. Private companies with channel property must dredge around their docks.
More than 80 percent of the channel is less than its designed depth because of the funding shortfall, Port Authority CEO Alec Dreyer said.
Fund holds millions
The authority and channel users are urging Congress to use the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for the nation's maintenance dredging projects. Users of the Houston channel pay nearly $130 million taxes annually into that fund, which goes into the general U.S. Treasury.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, co-sponsored legislation to require that all money paid into the fund be used to repair and maintain the nation's harbors and ports. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.
Ship Channel users and officials from the Greater Houston Port Bureau, which represents maritime companies, plan to visit congressional leaders this week to push that legislation. Port authority officials traveled to Washington last week in support of the measure.
Part of their message is that ships transiting the world's waters are supersizing in anticipation of the expansion of the Panama Canal. Once that project is complete in 2014, larger ships from Asia can transit that Central American waterway en route to U.S. ports.
"Much bigger ships are coming here," Dreyer said.
12 inches can be crucial
If the Houston Ship Channel had been a foot shallower, it would have cost the area economy $373 million in 2008 and 2009, according to a Texas Transportation Institute study commissioned by the Port Authority to evaluate the economic effects of insufficient dredging.
While 2008 was a record year for local shippers, trade plummeted in 2009 during the recession.
The study, for which the authority allocated up to $100,000, looked at vessels carrying non-containerized cargos that had to lighten their loads, resulting in increased transportation costs to shippers.
Houston Ship Channel pilots have tightened certain safety rules until officials can garner more funding for dredging. For example, vessels with drafts greater than 39 feet transiting the Ship Channel above Shell Oil Co. docks can move only during daylight hours.
Dredge vessels at work
As he navigated to the Port Authority's Barbours Cut Container Terminal, Bartholmey didn't face any problems with draft restrictions. He did pass two dredge vessels as they worked on the Texas City Channel and the Bolivar Ferry landing.
"There's always dredging somewhere," Bartholmey said as he ordered the ship's master to navigate past the dredge machines.
By JENALIA MORENO