Just three years after controversial ‘Deep Dredge,’ PortMiami wants more

Sick sea grass in Tuttle Basin

The urban end of Biscayne Bay that managed to survive decades of causeways and jet skis and dredging, where acres of seagrass grew in water that remained gin clear despite all the pumping and dumping from its coastal neighbors, is sick.
Up Next
The urban end of Biscayne Bay that managed to survive decades of causeways and jet skis and dredging, where acres of seagrass grew in water that remained gin clear despite all the pumping and dumping from its coastal neighbors, is sick.

The super ships are coming and PortMiami, set in an aquatic preserve at the north tip of Biscayne Bay, says it needs to get bigger.

While the scope of the work remains uncertain, enlarging the busy port just three years after the completion of the previous $205 million “Deep Dredge” is sure to set off another skirmish over potential damage to sea life from digging up the bottom of the shallow bay. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to settle a lawsuit with environmentalists over damage to coral.

This time around, the fight may well come down to what’s more valuable to South Florida: dollars from mega ships or the health of the only inshore reef tract in the U.S. that also protects the coast from hurricanes.

“To have to go through this again when we don’t even know the extent of the damage...is irresponsible,” said Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein.

But the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, which will oversee the work, has vowed to learn from past mistakes and in a meeting this week to launch a three-year, $3million study to determine the scope of the projects, invited input from the public as well as scientists for help.

“This is really a snapshot on a long list of lessons learned,” project manager Laurel Reichold said after going reviewing the 2015 dredge, which she said state and federal environmental regulators are still reviewing.

portmiami dredge reef slide.PNG
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The two-year, 50-foot dredging that raised repeated concerns after environmentalists began documenting damage to coral and surrounding seagrass struggling in cloudy water as 5 million cubic yards of bay bottom was barged offshore. In anticipation of the potential damage, the Corps had obtained an environmental permit from federal regulators that allowed it to kill some protected staghorn coral.

But the dredge ended up exceeding what the permit allowed, prompting repeated warnings from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which also complained the Corps failed to provide timely surveys of the damage and “selectively [choose] certain results to downplay the permanent effects.” Ultimately, the work left the county on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs. Environmentalists now say the number of damaged coral may surpass a half million.

Divers documented coral coated with sediment during the dredge. Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The coral once helped build a sturdy reef that provided the region with a rampart to help protect it from hurricanes and, increasingly, sea rise. Those reefs, however, have shrunk by up to 80 percent by some estimates and face even more peril from climate change.

This time around, Corps officials said they hoped tohave more transparency, mitigate potential damage up front, collaborate more with other agencies and better understand how sediment could spread as muddy bottom was dumped offshore.

“Reporting of the monitoring data was too slow and we know that now,” Reichold said..

The move to dredge the port again was prompted earlier this year when harbor pilots began complaining that the super ships now sailing through an expanded Panama Canal were having trouble turning. Although Corps engineers knew those ships were coming, Reichold said they were not factored into 2004 design work because the Corps was ordered to get the work done quickly when the project was finally funded in 2012 after dragging on for nearly 17 years.

“That would have been the time to...stop and reassess. That was not done because it was being conducted under the ‘We Can’t Wait’ initiative by the administration at the time. And so we can’t wait and so thou shalt proceed based on your 2004 economic analysis,” she said.

port miami dredge widening slide.PNG
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Port officials say they also anticipate even bigger ships, with drafts larger than 50 feet and carrying even more cargo.

Since mid-2016 and the collapse of a major South Korea shipping company, the cargo industry has shrunk to about a half-dozen companies that account for 70 percent of the business and favor larger, more cost-effective ships. As the only port south of Virginia able to service big ships, port officials say they need to continue with improvements to maintain that hold.

harbor pilots also say struggles negotiating turns have led to delays in port operations and required some ships to schedule arrivals weeks in advance.

At this week’s meeting, Capt. Jonathan Nitkin, chair of the Florida Harbor Pilots board of directors, said bringing in bigger ships and keeping the port vital should trump the reef.

“Everything you eat, wear or use comes through this port,” he said. “There’s reefs everywhere. The purpose of this project is to make this deep dredge really work with reality.”

Environmentalists disagreed.

“The shortsighted notion that by sacrificing the reefs in this location is inconsequential is a fallacy,” said University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science coral biologist Andrew Baker, who is looking for ways to make disappearing reefs more resilient to warmer and more acidic oceans caused by climate change.

In addition to their economic value — calculated at about $3.3 billion in 2003 — reefs off South Florida are populated with many species that live at the northern edge of their range. As oceans warm, Baker said that limit is moving north, making the corals invaluable to scientists trying to understand how climate change on reefs will play out.

“They’re right at the cusp at the leading edge of the migration and we’re about to destroy them,” he said.

The region has also been hit hard by a mysterious coral disease that broke out around Virginia Key in the Fall of 2014. Scientists are still trying to understand what caused it, and whether the dredge played a part. Last year, Corps officials initially blamed the dead coral on about 250 acres around the dredge work on another disease, along with bleaching caused by high water temperatures, a claim later disputed in a scientific study.

This week, they backed off those findings and said they are awaiting a review by Florida environmental regulators and the federal fisheries agency.

Over the next 18 months, they’ll nail down the scope of the project and determine, using ship safety simulations, exactly where more dredging needs to occur. Once that’s done, they can begin to determine how big the project might be, and how much it will cost.

“We are at the drawing board. We’ve got some study objectives. We’re looking at what is necessary. But we haven’t done any of the ship simulations,” said engineer Jason Spinning. “We haven’t done all the things we need to do, so at this time we’re asking for the public’s input to help us craft this project.”

When they calculate benefits, environmentalists hope they’ll also update the value of the reefs, and the cost the dredge might impose.

“We need to sit down and say what are the economic drawbacks of these projects,” said Sierra Club Conservation Chair Drew Martin. “I don’t think we always know.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich