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PortMiami dredging study years off as Army Engineers fall short

Posted on August 24, 2022

The long-awaited US Army Corps of Engineers study to evaluate widening and deepening the harbor of PortMiami is now due in June 2026. Results were initially expected this fall, but after the team behind the analysis ran out of time and funds, it requested an added $4.48 million and 57 months to carry the study forward.

The specialized segment of the Corps of Engineers called the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center received approval from headquarters in Washington, DC, for the exception in June.

Once results are available, it would be known if more dredging is necessary to complete navigation improvements to accommodate larger vessels entering PortMiami. By October of 2024, the group is to have a tentative plan, and by December 2024 a draft would be published for public and agency review.

“Their target is to come up with a model that could serve as the basis of an actual project, not just the study,” said David Ruderman, Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville spokesperson.

The process is to be followed by an agency decision in April 2025, a final report transmittal to the South Atlantic Division, and a Chief’s Report, which is required when a water resources project would require congressional authorization.

The funding for the study is split 50/50 between the Army Corps and PortMiami, Mr. Ruderman confirmed to Miami Today.

Within the next year, the group is to develop and test new ship simulation models and update the economic analysis of the project’s cost benefits.

Currently, the group is preparing the environmental packages and protocols to be submitted to other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“They don’t expect to actually start running [the simulations] until April of next year,” Mr. Ruderman said. The environmental studies are to be executed once the group gathers additional data, in spring or summer of 2023.

The group is also discussing where it could possibly dispose of the dredged material, and in initial conversations is looking at placing it either on Virginia Key or the Julia Tuttle Causeway Dredge Hole, Mr. Ruderman said. The group is also considering shallow water placement around causeways and creating areas for mangroves to grow.

The last dredging at the harbor, in 2015, brought some areas of the entrance channel depth to 52 feet, widened the outermost portion of the entrance channel to 800 feet, and widened portions of the inner channel and deepened it to 50 feet. In total, five dredges removed more than 5 million cubic yards of rock, limestone and sand, a website of the Army Corps says.

But with the dredging came environmental impacts as well. “During phase three of Miami Harbor [deepening], we were able to publish peer-reviewed literature that showed over 560,000 corals, at least, were killed by the dredging alone, and over 200 acres of the coral reef were damaged, some of it permanently, during the dredging project,” said executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, Rachel Silverstein.

These were outside of the predicted impacts from the permit, which anticipated coral impacts only from the direct removal of the reef to widen the channel and not from indirect activities, where sediments kicked up during the dredging fell on the sea floor and ended up smothering corals and coral reef, she explained.

Dr. Silverstein said the new project, still in the study phase, is anticipated to have four times as much direct impact on coral reefs as the last project.

“With the state of Miami-Dade’s coral reefs, which are very poor right now, between the dredging and the disease that has swept through, it’s hard to imagine allowing that much impact to the coral reef in the coming years.

Dr. Silverstein said it’s hard to eliminate the impact on the reefs, but with proper mitigation and minimization measures the number of corals harmed can be significantly reduced.

“Lately, they’ve been very flexible about listening to the local concerns. Obviously, we’re not going to be in favor of anything that’s going to impact the bay. There’s a balance between the environment and the economy,” said Irela Bague, chief bay officer of Miami-Dade County. “The environment is the economy. That’s why we are the cruise capital of the world too, so we have to weigh both in the same way.”


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