Creating A Coastal Constituency

BoatU.S. Magazine - November 2003 - page 22-23
By Ryck Lydecker

After more than 60 years, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is finally getting some respect. A summer-long campaign on the part of recreational boaters and commercial vessel operators to grow a grass roots constituency for the much-neglected waterway began to yield a bumper crop of local support as Congress reconvened this fall and state legislators began looking to next year's calendars.

A series of four town hallstyle meetings along the waterway sponsored by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association in cooperation with BoatU.S. turned out county commissioners, local mayors, chamber of commerce officials and waterwaydependent business owners as well as commercial shippers and recreational boating interests. Many voiced serious concerns about the waterway's future and the dim prospects for the business it brings to their communities unless something is done.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, commonly referred to as the ICW or just "the Ditch" by boaters, is the 1,100-mile route of protected waters and man-made channels threading the coast from Norfolk, VA, to Miami. While channel depth is supposed to be 12 feet for most of its length and 10 feet for a short portion in Florida, continued shoaling combined with the lack of maintenance dredging, has cut controlling depths to as little as five or six feet in some areas.

Wilmington, NC, Mayor Harper Peterson summed up sentiments about the waterway that participants heard repeatedly as the meetings unfolded during July and August.

"The waterway is a vital piece of the infrastructure of Wilmington," Peterson said at the second town meeting, July 30. "It is essential to commercial and recreational traffic and it gives us access to the Cape Fear River and to the state commercial ports.

"Recreational boaters from the waterway are essential to the health of this city," he added. "Without the waterway, Wilmington would dry up like a tree without water."

Peterson, himself a recreational boater originally from Rhode Island, discovered "The Ditch" and Wilmington - but not by choice - more than 30 years ago. He was crew on an offshore yacht delivery from New York to the Bahamas when engine trouble and a] anuary storm forced them to seek refuge. The boat was able to put in at nearby Wrightsville Beach via the Intracoastal Waterway for emergency repairs, but only just barely.

"If it wasn't for the ICW I wouldn't be here today" Peterson said.

Five Feet Deep and Rising

North Carolina has a huge stake in the future of the ICW, according to Mike Bradley who heads the state's Marine Trade Services agency.

"This state is second only to Florida in the number of boatbuilders here, the marine industry employs 20,000 people and recreational traffic north and southbound through our waters is growing dramatically every year," Bradley reported. "Now's the time for recreational boaters and the people in this industry to get busy and remind lawmakers that they are voters, too, if they want to preserve this waterway and the benefits it brings to our state."

Bradley, whose agency co-hosted the second meeting in the series along with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said recreational traffic is just as dependent on a waterway dredged to its authorized depths - and kept that way - as commercial operators. But according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the current controlling depth has shrunk to as little as five feet in some channels in the Wilmington District.

That means, increasingly, that both commercial vessels and larger recreational boats are being forced offshore, according to Benjamin "Bos" Smith, operations manager for South Carolina-based Stevens Towing which operates tugs. and barges throughout the waterway.

"No one wants to go around Cape Fear," he said. "There's a reason for that name.

"But if the Intracoastal Waterway becomes unnavigable, suddenly you're going to have half the recreational boaters that use it, say 8,000 boats, forced out into the ocean," said Smith who is also AIWA chairman. "What's the cost of a rescue out there? Lawmakers need to consider such costs as a consequence of neglecting the waterway and they need to hear about it from their constituents."

Money Drying Up

The Corps needs roughly $7 million annually to maintain the waterway in North Carolina, according to Robert Sattin, chief of navigation for the Wilmington District. Despite the impressive numbers of larger and larger recreational boats using the waterway, Congress appropriated a mere

$831,000 for the state's portion in the 2003 fiscal year. Participants heard a similar story at each of the other meetings as well in Charleston, Savannah and Miami - and the total shortfall for waterway dredging and maintenance this year is estimated at $41.8 million.

Up and down the waterway, meeting participants heard the same story: the Bush Administration is cutting ICW dredging budgets, Congress won't or can't appropriate the needed funds, except in a few localized areas, and the Corps says its hands are tied.

"We can tell you what the conditions are on the waterway but we can't do anything about them," Sattin summed up the current situation his agency faces throughout the South Atlantic Division.

Even if Congress could come up with the money, in the cost-benefit analyses it uses to justify dredging, the Corps can only consider commercial tonnage, explained Thomas Murray, an economist and marine business specialist with the Virginia Sea Grant College program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"Recreational vessel traffic and boater spending is not counted," Murray explained during a tour of the waterway near Wilmington arranged by AIWA for local decision-makers prior to the town meeting. "Neither is the commercial fishing, tour boat operation, ferry traffic, charter fishing or cruise ship activity that depends on this waterway nor the shoreside recreation and tourism spending it draws to these communities but you can just look around and you know the number is huge."

At each town meeting over the summer, Murray described a comprehensive economic impact study for the ICW region that he designed with the Sea Grant Colleges in the five states in cooperation with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association. The study, estimated to cost $1.2 million to implement, could be instrumental in convincing Congress to up the ante for the ICW as well as dig up new sources of dredging money, perhaps from the states, according to Rosemary Lynch, the association's executive director.

"The goal of these meetings was not to point fingers but to engage the waterway users and community leaders in order to generate some new thinking about how to keep this vital piece of maritime infrastructure in business," Lynch says. "We set out to build a constituency for the ICW beyond official Washington and we are succeeding."

As a result of the meetings, Lynch said, AIWA has established an Intracoastal Waterway Task Force of local officials, businesses, boaters and commercial maritime operators in each state. The task forces will serve as local sounding boards for solutions to waterway problems as well as tools to dig ICW grass roots support even deeper.

The next step, she said, is to compile a report of the meetings and the mood of waterway users for delivery to Congress as well as to state capitals along the waterway early in 2004.

"We've taken the temperature along the ICW this summer and although the situation isn't boiling over yet, it will if we don't all work together to find answers," Lynch says. "Fortunately our coalition is getting stronger and our message is getting out."

For more information about the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association and to get involved in the fight to save the ICW visit