Dredging: The issue we’re not talking about

Zach Murphy , Staff Writer

What happened in the Suez Canal may seem like a long time ago at this point, but global incidents like these show the consequences of modern shipping that are normally outside common conversation. Technology is advancing faster than our environment, meaning ships are getting to the point where they are too big for our ports. Though this may not seem like a serious issue, many port cities depend on international trade to stimulate their economies, leading to campaigns to dredge harbors to attract bigger ships. The cost is staggering: severe environmental damage and hundreds of millions of tax dollars that could be used for other purposes. The worst part about this whole situation is that there is no guarantee that ships will come to a dredged port, meaning that all the added infrastructure expense was for nothing and it will likely create problems for many prominent American cities.

Dredging, simply put, is excavating material from a body of water. The practice dates back thousands of years and has many benefits for maritime travel. In a modern context, however, dredging has become a key focal point of a larger problem, namely the growing size of ships and the ability for our harbors to handle them. As ships grow, they need more space underwater to prevent getting stuck, like the MV Ever Given in the Suez Canal. The difference between port cities and the Suez Canal is that they are not nearly as vital, meaning shipping companies have a number of options to choose from when bringing goods to the United States. Local economies receive benefits from ships doing business in their ports. Therefore, dredging is a critical practice in attracting ships and making sure container ships can fit into harbors. As said before, however, the dredging is incredibly expensive, and has no guarantee of paying off for local economies.

One can talk about cost in an economic or environmental sense. The economic risk of dredging is that there are a number of dredged ports on American coasts, meaning that ships will choose the option that makes the most economic sense. Though this is great for shipping companies, cities that spend hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge ports will see little to no economic return if their port can be undercut by a competing city. Even if economic risks are minimal, the environmental damage of dredging is substantial, as is the case in Florida where dredging near Miami has already damaged coral reefs, putting both the ecosystem and industries that depend on them at risk. Regardless of how you decide to look at this issue, economic and environmental concerns stand as an important factor our cities need to consider when making such substantial decisions.

This issue is fundamentally difficult to give a definitive answer to. On the one hand, hundreds of millions of dollars could be used for social programs and other efforts that will help cities become more egalitarian, livable and clean. At the same time, shipping is an important source of income that could put many jobs and industries at risk if ignored by city governments. While I have no answers as to how we can collectively solve this problem, I do believe that we need to address it now before its full negative effects are realized across American cities.

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