Low water forces Schumer to call for dredging at Port of Oswego

Staff reports

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer Wenesday said that the future of the Port of Oswego is threatened by undredged, shallow waterways that restrict access for ships navigating the port.

Over the past three years, the port’s popularity with the shipping industry has exploded due to its status as the only deep water port on the U.S. shores of Lake Ontario.

However, Schumer pointed out that an absence of routine maintenance dredging at the port in the last three years has left it suffering from shallow waterways that are increasingly treacherous for ships to navigate.

In some portions of Oswego Harbor, the water level is 3 to 4 feet below the recommended depth. Schumer warned that unless the Army Corps immediately redirects additional funding to dredge the Port of Oswego, its recent revitalization, as well as anticipated growth, could be jeopardized.

“For years, the Port of Oswego was hemorrhaging money and essentially dormant, but today this slumbering economic giant has finally awoken, and its resurrection has been nothing short of remarkable. Today, it lures scores of tankers to the shores of Central New York and buoys financial growth across the entire region,” said Senator Schumer. “However, the port’s promising future is now jeopardized by undredged, shallow and dangerous waterways that are treacherous for ships to navigate. Therefore, it’s essential that the Army Corps immediately dredge the port so it can continue importing success.”

After consistently losing money for years and seeing minimal activity, the Port of Oswego has undergone a startling rebound in recent years, adding capacity and providing an economic boost across the region. So far in 2007, more than 150 ships have utilized the Port, many enticed by its standing as the only deep water port on the U.S. shores of Lake Ontario. The bulk commodities that pass through Oswego Harbor generate approximately $5.9 million annually in direct revenue and support more than 78 jobs.

The port has transformed into a critical asset for retaining existing businesses reliant on shipments and for attracting new growth opportunities to Central New York. Commodities shipped out of the port include soybeans, windmill components, cement, chemicals, ores and minerals (particularly road salt). Some of the major businesses taking advantage of the port throughout Central New York include NRG Energy, Sprague Energy, Cargill, LaFarge Cement and Essroc cement.

However, today, Schumer revealed that the Port has gone without dredging since 2004, despite silt and sediment accumulation at nearly five times the recommended level. The Army Corp’s maintenance dredging plans call for approximately 33,000 cubic yards (cy) of material be dredged from the Port area every two to four years. The dredging is essential to ensure that navigable channel depths are maintained so ships can smoothly sail through points of entrance and into the port. Today, there is currently an estimated backlog of 159,000 cy of sediment which has decreased the depths of shipping berths and channels between 6 inches and several feet.

The absence of dredging has left the port with increasingly shallow areas, especially around key access point for ships. Data shows that the main access point to the port — the already narrow “Lake Approach Channel” — has shrunk to half its size because of silt accumulation. In addition, the water directly in front of the port’s East and West Docks has grown dramatically shallow. In an area where the recommended water level is 21 feet, the Army Corp’s own survey from May, 2007 found that several areas have depths between 16 and 17 feet.

This decrease in water level has meant that ships hull must carry lighter loads to remain more buoyant. The Port of Oswego has noted several instances where companies had to add another ship because cargo had to spread out among several vessels.

Schumer also emphasized that the longer the Port of Oswego goes without dredging, the more expensive the project becomes. Every year that dredging is not performed more sediment accumulates and the cost of the project rises. The cost was estimated at $635,000 in fiscal year ’07, but will rise to $715,000 in fiscal year ’09. “As the water level plummets at the Port of Oswego, the cost for dredging simultaneously skyrockets,” added Schumer. Each cubic yard costs between $3-6 to remove.

Today Schumer called on the Army Corp to investigate whether there are unused funds to perform the emergency dredging at the port. The area that must be dredged includes a 280—acre outer harbor, 3000 feet of federal channel in the Oswego River and the area directly next to the port’s piers. If emergency funds are not found for this project, the port will have to wait until the passage of the Federal fiscal year 2009 budget. By the time those funds are accessed, it could be another two years until the dredging is performed.

“In Upstate New York we must nurture and grow job-creating centers like the Port of Oswego. A relatively modest amount of money can guarantee the continued success of this rapidly growing port,” said Schumer.