Army Corps Begins Yearslong $8M Harbor Expansion Study

By Johanna F. Still, posted Dec 1, 2022
An evaluation of the N.C. State Ports Authority's 2018 feasibility study to deepen the Wilmington Harbor is underway. (Photo courtesy of NCSPA)
Officials are making headway toward furthering a project to potentially deepen the 26-mile Wilmington Harbor. The next step in the lengthy process, which entails a detailed evaluation of the endeavor, is slated to cost $8.3 million and take at least four years. 

In late October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) signed a cost-sharing agreement with the N.C. State Ports Authority to perform a feasibility analysis to study the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project. 

The project involves the proposed dredging of the harbor from its current depth of 42 feet to 47 feet. This would provide the port a competitive advantage so it can accommodate larger deep-draft vessels traversing the Cape Fear River. Proposed improvements involve both deepening and extending the channel farther offshore. 

The forthcoming USACE analysis will address technical and legal concerns identified by federal officials with the ports’ initial feasibility study. 

In 2018, the N.C. State Ports Authority completed a proposed channel deepening report on its own, utilizing Section 203 of the Water Resources Development Act, which allows non-federal interests to initiate feasibility studies. 

The exception provides an alternative avenue amid the complicated federal appropriations process, said Chris Brayman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Brayman, the Wilmington District’s deputy for programs and project management, said going about studies this way is rare, though it has been done before.

“This is the first time it’s been done in this district,” said USACE spokesman David Connolly. 

In February 2020, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works published a detailed review assessment of the ports’ initial study, identifying a multitude of issues. By December 2020, the project was conditionally authorized by Congress via the Water Resources and Development Act, permitted so long as it addressed the concerns addressed in the review assessment. 

In the absence of dedicated appropriations, Brayman said the Wilmington District secured permission to re-program unused federal funding from a previous study of the harbor in an effort to keep the project moving forward. By July 2021, the team secured a small pot of funds to scope out the work that needed to be done for a full review, she said. “It took us until basically October until we truly executed this agreement,” she said. 

Last year, state legislators set aside $283 million for the construction of the project, which represents a 25% non-federal share of the estimated $846 million plan. 

Those funds would cover actual project costs – not the study process required before work is underway. 

With a detailed scope of work now in place, the $8.3 million review process USACE is overseeing will last through at least October 2026. In September, the ports authority approved an agreement to fund its financial share of the study. 

“The port gave us all their funding right up front,” Brayman said. “The federal government only has $600,000 of that $4.15 million.”

Meeting the four-year timeline to complete the review is subject to the availability of federal funding to cover the $3.5 million still needed, according to Brayman. “Congress has to say, ‘Wilmington Harbor improvements get x dollars in investigations money,’” she said. 

As planned, the review will include a full environmental impact statement and economic analysis, among other items.  

“We’ve been working hand-in-hand with the port on this from the get-go,” Connolly said. “A lot of hard work has been going into it, but unfortunately, it’s not as quick as anybody would like.”
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