Once on 'life support,' Miami River dredging project nears early completion
By Risa Polansky
The years-long Miami River dredging project, once feared "on life support" as proponents struggled to secure funding, is chugging steadily toward an early completion.
Dredgers crossed east of the Brickell Bridge last week. A ceremonial "last scoop" party is scheduled for next month.
"The patient pulled through," said Eric Buermann, chair of the Miami River Commission.
More than once it was touch-and-go for the $89 million dredging, he said, as funding gaps threatened the project's delicate timeline, which sets an April 2009 deadline.
The late US Rep. Claude Pepper proposed the river be dredged in 1972.
The project kicked off in 2004, when contractors dredged less than half of the river before depleting funds, forcing a shutdown in 2005.
Dredging started back up in February of this year once there was enough money in the bank to guarantee some progress. Officials feared the process would stop short again once funds ran out.
But the total $89 million in federal, state and local monies was identified in time, and since, save for some minor setbacks — World War II munitions at the bottom of the river caused a bang in April — it's been relatively smooth sailing.
Proponents are to celebrate at a "last scoop" ceremony Oct. 15.
"It's going to be a day of a lot of champagne being uncorked," said US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the lead sponsor for federal appropriations.
She hailed the dredging as "a win-win. It's a win for the economy, it's a win for the environment."
The dredge has removed hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river's bottom, making for a cleaner, deeper waterway.
"This [now] 15-foot deep federal navigational channel is going to be able to increase the trade, the commerce, local employment," Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said.
For decades, large boats could only fill to 50% cargo capacity to traverse the shallow river — and only at high tide.
At 15-feet deep, the newly dredged river will allow fully packed cargo ships to come in and out regardless of tide.
What used to take two trips should now take one, boosting trade.
"The river is the fourth-largest seaport in Florida based on the cargo tonnage, so of course it's very important for commerce," Mr. Buermann said. "A number of shippers had built deeper draft vessels in anticipation of the dredging being completed."
The dredge already passed Haiti Shipping Lines, 555 NW South River Drive, and "I'm enjoying the benefit this week," Vice President Richard Dubin said. "During low tide, they're [boats] not sitting on the ground. We're able to load more cargo on the ships, so that's exciting… it's like having a factory and being able to do more productivity."
A fully dredged river will "increase the size of the boats that can come here," he said. "It will also increase the profitability on the boats because they'll be able to load more capacity. It means more revenue, more income."
In anticipation of a fully dredged waterway, Miami River-based Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co. is in the early stages of a $55 million expansion to serve mega-yachts up to 250-feet long.
"After years of boat traffic along the Miami River and storm water runoff, sediment has filled in the edges of the river bed," said Mark Bailey, vice president of external affairs. "Removing this sediment obstacle will allow for the more efficient operation of our current shiplift and railway platform and allow for our planned expanded capability in the future."
Expansion plans include also a marine-trades apprentice program.
"Once we are fully operational, the proposed modernization will ultimately bring 350 new, full-time jobs for skilled workers and pump millions into the local economy," he said, "not only from the more than $55 million in private investment but also from the presence of the mega-yacht owners, their guests and their professional crews, who will temporarily make Miami their home during the repair process."
The initial phase of the project is underway, and major construction is expected within two years.
Completing dredging will also be an environmental victory, proponents say.
"It's like a rain gutter that you clean out; get the leaves and the debris out," Mr. Buermann said.
Added Ms. Ros-Lehtinen: "by cleaning the river, we clean Biscayne Bay."
This was the river's first maintenance dredging. It's expected another won't be necessary for a half century or more, officials say.
To maintain the newly dredged river in the meantime, Miami-Dade County renewed $100,000 in funding for a water decontamination vessel that collects debris and treats and oxygenates the water.
The river's antiquated sanitary and sewer system is also to be retrofitted.
"The patient pulled through and will need minimal rehab, but I think the patient has got a new lease on life," Mr. Buermann said.
Once dredgers reach the mouth of the river, the Army Corps of Engineers is to survey the job. They could send the crew back to work on any areas in need of improvement, but even with clean-up and pack-up time factored in, the project is to be complete well ahead of its April deadline.
"It's really a success story for the community," Mr. Buermann said. "It's hard to believe it's done."