For 190 years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had the mission of maintaining the Savannah River. Today that task means around-the-clock work to keep massive ships moving in and out of the harbor.
In 1829, the Corps of Engineers was assigned to “Savannah Station,” and surveyed a river that was only about 5 feet deep. Today, through missions like the Savannah Harbor Federal Navigation Project, the Savannah District maintains the channel to a depth of 42 feet.
Keeping the shipping channel at that prescribed depth requires maintenance dredging. This dredging requires removing silt from the almost 2 mile-long entrance channel and the over 21 mile-long inner harbor. It also includes the channel wideners where ships pull over to allow other ships to sail past and the turning basin where ships get turned around.
“We remove approximately 4 to 5 million cubic yards a year on the inner harbor and place the material in the confined upland disposal areas on Barnwell Island South Carolina and Jones Oysterbed Island South Carolina. The government also removes approximately 1 million cubic yards on the entrance channel, and deposits the material in the Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site,” said Burton Moore, Savannah District dredging section chief.
To keep pace with all the material being dredged, Thomas Murphy, Marinex site safety health officer on the dredging barge Hampton Roads, said maintenance dredging runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with few exceptions.
“We take into consideration holiday celebrations like Fourth of July fireworks … there’s going to be a lot of boat traffic. So we’ll shut down a few hours before and move everything out of the way."
“We do a quick inspection or run the pipeline to make sure everybody’s safe and clear, and then get back to it,” Murphy added.
Safety forms a big part of maintenance dredging on the Savannah River, so the Savannah District has three inspectors, like Dale Reeves with the navigation branch, to watch over maintenance dredging operations on the river.
“We check for potential problems that hinder contractor performance and document down-time items such as debris in the cutter head, delay in ship traffic, problems with motor and pump, as well as safety meetings and dredging compliance,” Reeves said.
“The dredge barge is just a small part of the total system that allows the dredging process to happen. There are miles of pipeline to be monitored, the confined upland disposal area, numerous pieces of attendant plant, environmental laws and numerous personnel are involved,” added Reeves.
All of these pieces come together to ensure Savannah remains one of the nation’s busiest shipping ports.
“The maintenance dredging operation is critical to maintain the depths in the river for cargo ships and other marine traffic to navigate safely and effectively year-round,” said Reeves.