Dredge Acts of 2012

[In process earthworks (new locks) as part of the Panama Canal Expansion]

“There is neither a single issue nor solution to how to prepare for future maritime transportation infrastructure needs… There is a plethora of studies, opinions and prognostications about what the effects of the new [Panama Canal] locks will be on trade flows, ship sizes, volumes, transshipment port development, and which U.S. ports will benefit by the new locks…It will probably take some years before it is clear exactly what changes to cargo flow, and its supporting transportation network, will result from the new locks.”

- United States Army Corp of Engineer’s Port and Inland Waterways Modernization report.

Amongst speculation on how the expansion of the Panama Canal is going to reformat the world’s trade-related infrastructure and the diverse landscapes they occupy, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have released their own report on the topic, called Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels.  I haven’t read the document in full, but the executive summary and the preface alone (quoted at length here) are worth a look:

“What we do know is that the world economy is changing, with the pace and scope of these changes accelerating and expanding in unpredictable ways. Shifts in global alliances and political structures, the critical role of emerging technologies, the waxing and waning of the wealth of nations, and even changes to the climate and the natural environment that are impacting agricultural production and the availability of water, are all manifesting right before our very eyes.

But that is the challenge – often we don’t pick up the signals that announce many of these changes, nor truly appreciate the significance of the shifts while they are happening or understand the long-term implications associated with these permutations. It is only later, in retrospect, that we recognize some of these changes as transformative “game-changers” to the status quo we mistakenly assumed would continue into the future ad infinitum.

In fact, although many now trace the existence of today’s modern container ships to the vision of American truck magnate Malcom McLean, who deployed the first container vessel in the U.S., the converted T2 tanker Ideal X, who among us realized that when the Ideal X carried 58 containers from Port Newark, NJ to Houston, TX on its maiden voyage on April 26, 1956 that we were witnessing the beginning of a revolution in modern shipping that represented a mega-shift in world trade? In his book “The Box,” author Marc Levinson points out that “absolutely no one anticipated that containerization would open the way to vast changes in where and how goods are manufactured, that it would provide a major impetus to transport deregulation, or that it would help integrate East Asia into a world economy that previously had centered on North America.

Despite the uncertainties in timing and port-specific implications that still need to play out, the certain injection of successive new generations of post-Panamax vessels into the world fleet could be a“game-changer” for the U.S. over the long term, as it has the potential to not only provide a cost-effective complement to the intermodal transport of imports via the U.S. land bridge, while also re-shaping the service from Asia to the Mediterranean and on to the U.S. East Coast, but may also affect the highly competitive transport price structure along the Midwest to Columbia-Snake route for grain and other bulk exports bound for trans-Pacific shipping. Inland waterways play a key role in the cost efficient transport of grains, oil seeds, fertilizers, petroleum products and coal. Gulf ports play key roles in the transport of these commodities, such as New Orleans being the dominant port for the export of grains from the U.S. Therefore the expanded canal could provide a significant competitive opportunity for U.S. Gulf and South Atlantic ports and for U.S. inland waterways – if we are prepared.”

[The made terrain of container shipping terminals at the Port of Los Angeles]

The USACE has a vested agenda in the last clause from the quote above, as the federal agency charged with the responsibility of “investigating, developing and maintaining the nation’s water and related environmental resources.” How the Corps situates the Panama Canal Expansion is of interest to us, as we have been pondering it in a similar manner: observing the emergence of a design singularity that creates a cascade of effects arriving in predictable, unforeseen and networked ways in landscapes around the world.  The P.C. Expansion engineering shockwave.

The current earthworks of the Panama Canal Expansion – as monumental and sublime as they are – are rendered somewhat small when compared to the aggregate rearrangement of places and things they will engender far beyond the isthmus.  Think navigable rivers in the United States, the depths of which are two-to-four times deeper than they ever were before industrial channel deepening.  Or seemingly seemingly unrelated endeavors, like the rerouting of Staten Island’s subterranean drinking water siphon (see below) with a new 12′ diameter concrete water pipe tunneled 100′ below the harbor, the construction of which currently produces 200 cubic yards of excavated dirt per day.  And unlike the rather quiet logistical revolution brought about by shipping containers sixty years ago, the singularity of the P.C. Expansion has been analyzed, prognosticated, modeled, and rhetorically conjured into existence, which itself is a sign of just how much the nascent field of “logistics” has developed and expanded in agency since the shipping container arrived.

On the subject of ‘environmental footprint’, The USACE report doesn’t go silent on problems associated with maritime trade expansion:

“Measured in geographical terms, the environmental footprint directly impacted by development of transportation system infrastructure is a small fraction of the conterminous United States. But the degree of adverse impact on natural systems and wild species of public interest has been particularly intense and the offsite impacts on air, water and habitat quality from systems operations have been far-reaching. The sources of past environmental effects indicate the type of future modernization impacts that are likely to occur from expansion of harbor, port and intermodal infrastructure and from transportation systems operations.

Modernization will need to be accompanied by justified mitigation to avoid further 1) degraded air and water quality that threatens human health and safety, especially of low income and minority groups; 2) loss of important natural and cultural heritage found in parks, refuges, wetlands and scarce species; or 3) loss of recreational, commercial and other economically important resources. Potential infrastructural development along coasts and waterways is a concern because coastal ports and inland waterway infrastructure is closely associated with two of the scarcest types of ecosystems—free flowing rivers and estuarine wetlands. Lock and dam impoundments have contributed substantially to the imperilment of numerous freshwater species by reducing freeflowing river habitat.”

[U.S. inland shipping waterways and related ports]

Expanding logistical awareness of the effects of transport infrastructure combined with added foresight to address those effects, shift how those processes coalesce and manifest – what we might call an anticipatory intelligence.  As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the dredge cycle is ever-aggregating, and thus grows ever-more intelligent, circular and responsive by necessity.

Likewise, enter the Dredge Act of 2012.  This proposed piece of legislation authorizes the USACE to dredge the Mississippi to a depth of 50′ to allow for passage of Post Panamax Vessels through its inland route.  This will generate a huge amount of dredge materia,l and accordingly the legislation also mandates that the USACE utilize that dredge to tactically rebuild wetlands in the vanishing Mississippi Delta.  This brings the Corps redesign of the river nearly full circle.   As the Environmental Defense Fund, The National Wildlife Federation, and The National Audubon Society have remarked, this might not be a perfect system, but it approaches a model that is more holistic and integrative than current operations are.  A variety of fascinating design questions then come into play.  Where and how to ‘deposit’ that material for maximum collaborative effect with existing water flows, vegetative communities, public participation, and widespread deltaic cuts and other land alterations created by the petro-chemical industries.  Perhaps we might see a delta network of Mississippi silt engines generating up to 775 acres of coastal wetlands a year.  I wouldn’t mind working on that project.

And speaking of dredge acts and events of 2012, the Dredge Research Collaborative is hard at work assembling DredgeFest NYC, which will be held September 28th and 29th.  Check back there for more details about the event soon.


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