Lack of federal funds threatens future of Intracoastal Waterway
CHARLESTON, S.C. - Supporters of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway hope the federal government agrees to include more money in next year's budget for the 1,200-mile inland channel.
It is estimated to take $20 million a year to keep the channel healthy, which doesn't include a multimillion-dollar backlog of dredging work, but the U.S. House and the Bush administration have budgeted a little more than $2 million for 2006.
"It is going to be very easy for Congress to de-authorize the waterway with funding levels so low," said Rosemary Lynch, executive director of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association. "We have to make sure they realize it is a national resource."
Business owners and recreational boaters who use the waterway plan a letter-writing campaign to get more federal dollars, and South Carolina lawmakers said they would push for the Senate's amount of $14 million - more money than the channel has received in several years - when the final budget is crafted in a House-Senate conference committee.
"The current shallow depths in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway are not only impeding economic growth but also creating safety concerns," said U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "The Senate recognized in the appropriations bill the importance of keeping the waterway dredged to an operating level of 12 feet. I hope in conference we can hold this number and this much-needed dredging will begin as soon as possible."
Supporters are trying to make the case that the waterway is more than a playground for wealthy boaters. Transporting fuel, particularly, is safer and cheaper along the waterway. The channel keeps boaters safe and feeds the economy of small towns along the East Coast.
"It would be a real tragedy to lose this waterway," Lynch said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Brown said commercial traffic levels have been an impediment to getting more money for the waterway because the funding formula is based on commercial ton mileage. Because the waterway is so long, stretching from Norfolk, Va., to Miami, its traffic seems somewhat diluted.
While the Atlantic Intracoastal doesn't see the level of barge traffic of the Mississippi River, it provides an estimated $10 billion impact to the Southeast's economy every year.
Brown said the best strategy is to show how important the channel is to the country.
"It is my intention to prove the significance of this waterway for both recreational and tourism purposes, and also for local commerce purposes," said Brown, R-S.C. "The loss of this great waterway would be devastating to the beautiful coast of South Carolina."