SAVANNAH, Ga. — After 15 years of studies, lawsuits and bureaucratic delays, state and federal officials Wednesday signed the final paperwork needed for crews to begin digging sand and mud from the Savannah harbor to make room for supersized cargo ships to reach the busy port.
"Every time we thought we were at the end of the track ... somebody thought about another hurdle that they would like for us to jump over," Gov. Nathan Deal said during a signing ceremony at a Home Depot distribution center in metro Atlanta.
He emphasized the Port of Savannah's role in linking businesses to customers and suppliers worldwide.
The cost-sharing agreement allows the harbor deepening, which is a federal construction project, to get started on the state's dime.
Georgia has $266 million ready to spend and Deal didn't want to wait on Washington to start funding its 60 percent share of the $706 million project. Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest container port and officials say deeper water is vital to ensure it keeps growing.
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling to accommodate giant cargo ships expected to begin arriving through an expanded Panama Canal in early 2016. Some of the big ships are already coming from Asia through the Suez Canal, but most East Coast ports are too shallow to handle the vessels with full loads or during low tides.
Georgia's upfront cash virtually guarantees that the expansion — authorized for study by Congress in 1999 — finally breaks ground in the coming months. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the dredging, said it would immediately solicit bids on two contracts for the project's first year. Those contracts should be awarded before New Year's.
The Corps plans to deepen the shipping channel by 5 feet along a 39-mile stretch that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the port's docks upstream from downtown Savannah. Corps officials don't expect work to be finished until 2020 — and that's if everything goes smoothly. And there are still potential obstacles.
First, the expansion will burn through most of the state's $266 million in the first year. Corps officials said they need about $250 million to get started. Most of that money will go to a three-year contract to deepen the outer harbor and dig a 7-mile extension in the ocean near Tybee Island, as well as construction of machines that artificially pump oxygenated water into the river bottom to help fish breathe.
By the project's second year, when the Corps will need roughly $100 million more to keep construction on track, the state's money will be nearly spent. That means the federal government needs to commit substantial funding next year.
"We are in tough budget times," said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose upcoming retirement means he won't be in Washington next year to help push for construction funds. "This is not going to be easy. But it hasn't been easy to get to the point we are now."
Deal told reporters he wasn't going to discuss the possibility of asking for more state funding if Washington falls short "because I don't want to let the federal government off the hook."
There's also a possibility the harbor expansion could return to court if a key plan for offsetting environmental damage fails to work. Environmental groups and officials in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, settled lawsuits challenging the deepening last year in exchange for extra monitoring and conservation efforts.
That settlement contained a make-or-break clause: the Army Corps must successfully test machines designed to boost the channel's oxygen level for fish, crabs, worms and bacteria living on the river bottom. If they can't prove the oxygen injectors work, opponents can scrap the settlement, return to U.S. District Court and seek an injunction to halt dredging until the case gets resolved.
"One of the major concerns about deepening the river is the exacerbation of saltwater intrusion and further stressing a river that is already severely stressed, especially when it comes to the amount of oxygen in the river," said Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who sued the Army Corps on behalf of conservation groups.
The Savannah harbor has already been dredged five times between 1912 and 1994, nearly doubling its depth from 21.5 feet to 42 feet. Environmentalists say waterway has already been pushed to its limits for sustaining some wildlife.
Col. Thomas Tickner, commander of the Army Corps' Savannah District, said he's confident the oxygen injectors will offset any impairment to the river's natural ability to take in oxygen from the surface.
"We'll make them work," Tickner said.
Foody reported from Locust Grove, Georgia.