Bravo, Tallahassee: Now it's DC's turn on river funding
By Michael Lewis
Great news: As its tax-cut plans made loud TV sound bites, the Florida Legislature was quietly bolstering our economy, channeling $5 million to decontaminate the Miami River.
That means four-fifths of the river will be dredged of pollutants and deepened to permit far more commercial shipping.
Unfortunately, the final $16 million of the $74 million effort isn't funded, and that's the money to clear the river's mouth. Without that step, the other four-fifths wouldn't really enhance shipping because ships couldn't enter or leave the river fully loaded.
With the state's check in hand, final funding will be up to either the city and county or the federal government. But as the Legislature prepares to squeeze local governments by slashing property-tax revenues, they'll be unable to help more than they have already.
That puts the ball squarely in Washington's court.
To see why the federal government must bail out the dredging, you have to understand the work's vital impact.
The 5.5-mile river bisects Miami. While it's a treat to dine along the river's banks or cruise it in a pleasure boat, it's also a working waterway of vital commercial and strategic importance.
The 26 privately owned terminals along the river handle about $4 billion worth of goods shipped yearly between Miami and the Caribbean, comprising a de facto port that is the state's fourth-largest.
But it's a terribly inefficient port, and river sediments are the reason. Any driver who's been stuck at a bridge watching freighters glide past knows that shipping now must be done not at the most convenient times but only at high tide because the formerly 15-foot-deep river has been silted in to just 9-11 feet in the channel as sediments carried by storm-water runoff from 69 square miles of urban and industrial land has poured in.
Not only are shipping hours constricted — unnecessarily jamming downtown driving and costing ships valuable hours at sea — but ships cannot be loaded above about half-capacity or they'll run aground.
And when they do scrape bottom, they dislodge and send flowing toward Biscayne Bay sediments contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, sewage, petroleum products and the tons of junk dumped into the river for nearly eight decades — the 100- to 150-foot-wide navigation channel hasn't been dredged since it was created in 1930.
Finally, in 2004, a consortium of governments funded dredging and work began on removal of 721,000 cubic yards of sediment — the muck was dried at two sites along the river and then about 100 truckloads a day were hauled to landfills. But money ran out late in 2005 and work was halted.
So why didn't dredging begin at the river's mouth rather than its head? Because subsequent work upstream would have sent sediments and contaminants flowing to areas that already had been cleared.
The federal government recognized years ago that deepening and cleaning the river would have both economic and environmental benefits, estimated then at more than $100 million over 20 years. That's why it agreed to pay 80% of the cost of the 2004 dredging contract.
But Washington hasn't paid its full share. The Legislature's latest $5 million contribution actually covers part of the federal pledge with no guarantee that the state will ever be repaid.
Now the clock is ticking. Work resumes in July with the cash in hand, but the contract expires in 2009. If $16 million more isn't committed soon, work will end incomplete. More dredging would be needed, but if it isn't finished by early 2009, it would come at inflated prices, not the 2004 rate. Delay is costly.
That means the 2008 federal appropriation must pay the balance. Our delegates to Congress can use help to make that happen.
At a time when the Caribbean is becoming more rather than less vital to our nation's economy and our political future and when sabers are being rattled in Venezuela, a compelling case can be made that dredging the Miami River to an adequate depth is a national issue.
Congress needs to hear that case. As the 2008 campaign gathers steam, well-placed words from well-placed contributors and activists should join those of the marine industry to help money flow to the river so that shipping can flow into and out of it cleanly, efficiently — and soon.