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Turning the Tide on the ICW
History remembers Warren G. Harding as one of this country’s less effective presidents. Criticized as a poor judge of character when scandal erupted in his administration, the 29th president has, nonetheless, one thing in common with Atlantic Coast boaters: Harding ran hard aground in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Technically speaking, the incident occurred in what was then Florida’s East Coast Canal near Fort Lauderdale. And to be historically accurate, Harding wasn’t at the helm; he was a guest aboard a private vessel cruising the New River Sound in 1923. The same vessel ran aground again the following day and on both occasions, Harding took firm action - he went ashore and played golf.
But the incident drew attention to the state of the canal and the need for regular dredging. It also revived a business coalition formed years earlier to promote the waterway for the benefit of communities along its shores. Somehow, a year later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was directed to conduct economic assessments of the canal. The study, as might be expected considering the president’s difficulties, justified a deeper draft channel and regular dredging. This led eventually to the creation of what boaters now know as the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), a protected navigation route stretching from north of Boston to Key West, FL.
"No president has run aground in recent memory," reports Rosemary Lynch, executive director of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, a coalition formed to lobby for the ICW. "But recreational boaters, as well as commercial vessels, are still getting stuck on the ICW and it’s time to rescue this vital waterway again."
Chronic shoaling along the 1,100-mile section from Norfolk to Miami plagues everything from private yachts to tugs with barges, charter fishing boats and passenger vessels, Lynch says. The alliance of waterway users she heads is urging the federal government to dredge the ICW to its authorized depths and is focusing attention on the potential of the southeastern segment of the ICW, just as the Florida business organizations did 75 years ago.
These days, Lynch says recreational use has several times the economic impact of the dwindling commercial traffic on the ICW but the Corps of Engineers considers only commercial tonnage in its economic assessments. That traffic has been declining and Congress keeps cutting dredging budgets, she reports.
"Shoaling channels mean less cargo is shipped via the waterway and that translates to less federal money for maintenance. Recreational use is pumping more money into the local economies along the ICW every year, but the Corps cannot factor in those numbers, Lynch adds"
Diggin’ The Ditch
About 13,000 recreational vessels transit the ICW each year, according to the most recent estimates available. East Coast boaters use the waterway to make annual north-south migrations, Midwestern boaters cruise it to close the Mississippi/Great Lakes/Gulf of Mexico loop and for international cruisers, the ICW is a popular way to see the U.S.A. by boat.
It’s been called "the boaters’ Route 66" and compared to transcontinental hiking trails. The section from north of Cape Cod runs through deep water like Long Island Sound, the Delaware Bay and on to the Chesapeake, but some parts, particularly in the waters behind New Jersey’s barrier islands the ICW suffers from shoaling.
The worst problems, however, are found in the southern section which has a 12-foot authorized depth from Norfolk, VA, to Ft. Pierce, FL, and 10 feet from there to Miami. In reality, vessels there encounter depths as low as six or seven feet at low tide.
This part of the ICW is made up of naturally deep estuaries, rivers and sounds connected by manmade "cuts" through land areas and shallows which has earned it the nickname "The Ditch." It is these cuts and dredged channels, as well as secondary channels running inland and connecting channels to ocean inlets that require periodic dredging to keep traffic flowing.
But Congress keeps cutting the overall budget for Corps of Engineers’ maintenance operations like dredging and last year the agency took a 14% cut overall. That meant even less money for the Atlantic ICW and by the end of the current fiscal year, the Corps predicts it will have a $835 million dredging backlog.
"Both commercial and recreational users alike are experiencing increasing amounts of damage in navigating the waterway and there is an overall concern about safety on the ICW," reports Corps economist Terry Stratton who studied the ICW at the request of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association.
"We estimate that over half the traffic consists of recreational vessels, yet recreation is not an authorized project purpose for the waterway," Stratton adds. "As a result, we haven’t been able to count those economic contributions in our cost-benefit analyses to justify dredging."
Stratton’s report shows that recreational use can’t be ignored any longer but, ironically, one place where boaters’ dollars are being counted to justify dredging is right where Harding ran aground in Florida.
By the Numbers
"Recreational use of the Intracoastal Waterway pumps $7.9 billion annually into our local economies," reports David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND). "But if dredging stops, our studies show that number will be cut in half."Conversely, if dredging is increased to provide the 10- and 12-foot channels that are authorized here, we’d see economic output jump nearly 20%," says Roach.
Roach, who serves on the board of the new coalition for the ICW, says it costs $7.8 million annually to maintain the waterway in Florida. But federal funding through the Corps of Engineers, which should pay for 100% of the cost, covers less than half of that, about $3.2 million. Yet, the waterway is worth so much to the local economies that the state picks up the difference.
Boaters in the other south Atlantic ICW states aren’t so lucky, but BoatU.S. and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association have enlisted the aid of the National Sea Grant College Program to help find solutions. Next month, a panel of marine business experts, federal officials and economists from the Sea Grant College programs in the five south Atlantic states will lay the groundwork for a comprehensive study to measure all marine activity - including recreational boating - on the ICW to determine its economic impact for the entire region.