Warren McCrimmon, Toledo's seaport director, fights a yearly battle against storms and water currents that swirl around the Maumee River muck so much they could threaten what has lately been a healthy bottom line.
Known as Toledo Harbor, the seven-mile river shipping channel that runs to I-75 plus another 15 or so miles out into Lake Erie must be kept wide and deep enough for ships and their valuable cargo to make it to the Port of Toledo, which has enjoyed increased business this year.
Sediment builds up each year, and the navigation channel narrows. Dredging it is a continuous process; you have to keep up or risk becoming overwhelmed.
"We've lived on the edge for years. You get used to it," said Mr. McCrimmon, who works for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. "We've been very lucky, because Lake Erie is up this year. It's the only Great Lake with more water this year. Whenever we have had [the largest ships come in], we have also had lots of water in the river. We've been lucky."
But the channel is just one "big storm" away from being shut down, Mr. McCrimmon said. The U.S. Coast Guard would make that decision, likely prompting emergency dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and lost revenue for Toledo, as ships would be turned away, he said.
Clearing out the Maumee and Lake Erie channel is the largest dredging project each year on the Great Lakes. Other Great Lake ports have had worse problems forcing ships to "light-load," meaning captains can't fill to capacity because the ship would be too heavy to safely navigate the port channels.
The corps takes care of about 300 ports across the country. The 2006 federal budget provides $921 million, including $588 million for "maintaining existing channels."
To keep up with the dredging, Mr. McCrimmon estimates $5 million to $10 million more each year is needed for Toledo. The issue is especially important because the Port of Toledo is making a financial comeback and is having a banner year.
General cargo loaded and unloaded has increased three-fold through May, compared to the same period last year. That increase is due in part to a deal in Brazil to accept bulk sugar and one struck in Quebec for the port to become a distribution center for aluminum used in automobiles.
Local officials and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) have pushed for years for more money to complete the needed dredging and clear up the backlog.
At the current pace, it's a losing battle, Mr. McCrimmon said. About 1.3 million cubic yards of material are deposited each year in Toledo Harbor. The most the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can dredge annually is 850,000 cubic yards, he said. The corps estimates it has 3 million to 4 million cubic yards to dredge out of Toledo Harbor, he said.
One problem cited by the corps is where to put the muck after it's sucked out of the channel.
" 'We have to slow down,' the corps says. The response from the ports would be, 'Let's find a reuse for those dredged materials.' So the issue of where you put it is cloudy," said Steve Katich, staff director for Miss Kaptur. "The corps is recalcitrant. They are unable to move forward, and we find ourselves back in this situation."
The corps has also found itself in the middle of a long-running environmental battle involving dumping the silt. For years, the corps dumped it into an Oregon facility. But about 20 years ago, it began dumping more than half into open Lake Erie waters, prompting complaints that the silt may contain harmful contaminants or stir them up from the bottom.
The Ohio EPA restricted the practice to a lesser amount, and the issue of where to dump and who will pay for a new facility or for other strategies - Ohio, Michigan, or the federal government - still looms.
Last year, a task force of the corps, Ohio EPA, and Ohio Department of Natural Resources was to study the potential of using silt to build undefined "habitat restoration units" at Little Cedar Point, Turtle Creek, or other areas.
"The answer to the dredging problem is to legislatively say to the corps, 'Do it,' " Mr. Katich said. "But the reuse of those materials has to be advanced because even if you could dredge more, you don't have anywhere to put it. So you have these legislative battles."
The issue of how to use or where to dump the silt and muck must be resolved, Mr. Katich said. Ideas have involved developing fertilizer from the silt or filling abandoned strip mines with it.
"At least we can credit the Bush Administration for not zeroing out ports [in the budget]. I think we will feel successful in adding to the Corps of Engineers' budget to allow additional dredging on the Maumee River," he said. "We do know it's a growing problem."
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: email@example.com or 419-724-6077.