To understand where we are, you have to understand how we got here. The Port of Mobile and the Mobile Ship Channel have been dredged for nearly two centuries, according to a Regional Sediment Management Strategy for Mobile Bay published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 2015.
For most of that time, the method was consistent, but it was employed on a much smaller scale than today. Excess sediment was mechanically removed, then “side cast” to the edges of the channel or, at times, transported inland for use or storage. According to the report, as dredging technology improved and the port grew, side casting methods also improved.
But in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986, Congress required “all material dredged from Mobile Bay channel to be placed in the approved Mobile North Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site (ODMDS),” which was located south of Dauphin Island, as much as 40 miles from the Port of Mobile. Coincidentally, the costs of dredging increased three-fold, from $2 per cubic yard to $6.
A decade later, in 1996, Congress reauthorized WRDA, but it also relaxed dredge restrictions on the Mobile Bay shipping channel: “In disposing of material from such a project, the [USACE] after compliance with applicable laws and after opportunity for public review and comment, may consider alternatives to disposal of such material in the Gulf of Mexico, including environmentally acceptable alternatives for beneficial uses of dredged material and environmental restoration.”
As USACE noted in its 2015 report, “Hauling material from the Mobile Bay channel to the ODMDS by hopper dredge permanently removes sediment from the natural system. Removal of the sediment from Mobile Bay may not be the most environmentally sound method of disposing of the dredged sediment and may have long-term negative effects.” Instead, the Corps suggested, “reestablishing beneficial use and other environmentally acceptable alternatives within Mobile Bay may contribute to much-needed conservation of various ecological resources that exist in the Mobile Bay system.”
USACE is part of a loose organization known as the Mobile Harbor Interagency Working Group (IWG), which has considered beneficial uses of dredged material since 2011. The group also includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Alabama State Port Authority, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and other government and non-government partners.
Together, state or federal agencies own and maintain several upland dredge disposal sites, including Gaillard Island near the Theodore Industrial Canal and, closer to the port, Pinto Island, Blakely Island and McDuffie Island. But according to the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), the latter three are at capacity. Beginning in 2011, IWG began to evaluate a series of options for the beneficial use of dredged material, with the intent of modifying its existing sediment management practices “and develop a placement strategy within Mobile Bay that meets the operation and maintenance needs for Mobile Harbor that is consistent with environmental standards.”
Those options included filling a large, submerged borrow pit known as the “Brookley Hole” just offshore of the old Brookley golf course, where sediments were removed from the bay to construct Brookley Field in the 1940s. There, a basin some 23 feet deep — 20 feet deeper than surrounding water — allegedly holds hypoxic water, which is oxygen depleted.
A pre-restoration investigation determined the partial or complete filling of Brookley Hole, and a similar borrow pit nearby known as the “Airport Hole,” “would benefit fishery resources” and “restore historical bathymetric contours” of that area of Upper Mobile Bay, where, in the best-case scenario, it would “support the establishment of natural communities such as [submerged aquatic vegetation] and oyster beds.”
IWG also considered an advanced side-casting method of dredge disposal known as thin-layer placement (TLP) where dredged sediments are disposed of in open water, on the bottom of the bay adjacent to the shipping channel, but in layers no more than 12 inches deep. Currently, environmental guidelines prohibit TLP in Mobile Bay unless it’s used in an emergency, but IWG concluded “a long-term option for conducting within-bay, thin-layer disposal should be pursued.”
The third sediment management strategy, introduced by IWG in 2011, involved the development of what was then called the “Upper Bay Emergent Tidal Marsh,” billed as a possible “long-term placement area for material dredged from the Mobile Bay channel.” In April 2012, IWG met to discuss three potential beneficial-use locations in Upper Mobile Bay, including a “high priority” 1,200-acre site conveniently located close to the mouth of the Mobile River and a “possibly lower occurrence of cultural resources.”
Lower-priority areas were discounted for the presence of oyster reefs and the proximity to Brookley, which may have required additional permitting from the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 2013, ASPA funded a private survey of cultural resources in the high-priority area, discovering “numerous navigational obstructions within the area of potential effect that had been placed in Upper Mobile Bay during the American Civil War,” according to USACE’s 2015 report. “These obstructions consist of shipwrecks, bricks, wood pilings” and 14 magnetic anomalies. Otherwise, the survey found “acceptable placement areas” for dredge material, and IWG recommended proceeding with a preliminary design.
In 2014, USACE submitted a request to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, the federal Restore Act council, for funding a project known as “Beneficial Use of Dredged Material to Create Emergent Tidal Marsh in Upper Mobile Bay.”
“The intent is to establish a large-scale, semi-contained dredged material placement area to create approximately 1,200 acres of brackish tidal marsh and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) habitats in northern Mobile Bay,” the application read. The plan called for constructing a series of “large, low-profile, semi-contained marsh cells,” with containment dikes constructed of sandy material dredged from the Black Warrior-Tombigbee waterway.
“Once constructed, the cells will be incrementally filled with fine-grained sediment from dredging and maintenance of the Upper Mobile Harbor navigation project and vegetated with tidal emergent vegetation from nearby donor sites,” the application read.
The application received $2.5 million for planning purposes, but the estimated $25 million construction cost was never funded by the federal Restore Act council. Instead, sometime in 2019 or 2020, USACE abandoned its sponsorship of the project and transferred the proposal to ASPA, which sought an amendment to the council’s funded priorities list to transfer the funding.
Earlier this year, ASPA contracted with an engineering firm, Moffatt & Nichol, to conduct preliminary engineering and design on its beneficial-use project, since rebranded the “Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project.” ASPA issued a press release about the project in May, but offered few details other than a rough location of the project area and statements suggesting it would be “a wise use” of the dredge material, a “valuable Alabama natural resource.”
Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation_VirtMeeting1_09102021 (1)
“Benefits resulting from this wetland creation project will include improved water quality, more habitat for living coastal and marine organisms, and implementation of improved dredging practices that support navigation-related industries and thus the region’s economy,” the press release read, noting a website had been created for the project, where subscribers could read more information about the project and enroll to receive updates.
“Planning activities are expected to be complete by the end of 2021,” it read. “Members of the Moffatt & Nichol project team, which include local coastal engineers and scientists, will perform investigations, studies and engineering design work for meeting all federal and state compliance requirements. Work to define the exact location of the wetland site and identify sources of material for construction of the wetland will take place during the latter part of the year. As part of the planning process, a construction permit application will be filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
Since then, ASPA issued no updates about the project through the project website. But in August, an email was sent to interested parties announcing a virtual public meeting to discuss the project, but it was later postponed as Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana. When it was rescheduled in September, a total of 18 people, including a Lagniappe journalist, logged into the virtual meeting to hear details.
There, for the first time in a forum outside of the IWG meetings, ASPA disclosed information about the project’s goals, background, benefits, design process and criteria, and conceptual designs. But details such as the exact location of the project and its bathymetric profile remained unclear until Dec. 2, when USACE issued a public notice of ASPA’s application for the project.
To the surprise of several observers and environmentalists, including some community members of IWG, the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project appeared to threaten emerging SAV beds south of the Causeway, which have been naturally growing since at least 2002, according to data gathered by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. Additionally, questions were raised about potential effects on wildlife, hydrology and resiliency.
But ASPA is adamant that despite the lingering questions, the benefits of the project outweigh the risks.
“Controlling the nutrient-rich, valuable dredged material and carefully placing it in the bay is expected to be ‘beneficial’ for several reasons,” ASPA spokesperson Judith Adams said in a list of responses to questions sent last week. “It will restore coastal wetlands, thus creating habitat and breeding grounds for fish, crab, and shrimp; increase future natural resources including sport fishing and other opportunities for people to recreate; increase submerged aquatic vegetation habitat; improve water quality; increase resilience against storm surge; reduce sedimentation and increase dissolved oxygen; and reduce maintenance costs for public channels and berths.”
Again, the port emphasized that existing upland dredge disposal areas are at capacity, and ASPA must dewater and remove excess dredge material by truck, a two-step, “double-handling” process that is more environmentally destructive than simply pumping the material once to its final destination. ASPA said cost-benefit analysis has not been fully performed, but annual costs associated with “double handling” cost nearly $5 million.
“The plan for this dredged material placement is different from the ASPA’s current disposal methods in that it utilizes the nutrient-rich material for creating wetlands rather than placing it in upland sites or in open water where benefits to the environment are not realized,” Adams said.
Capt. Richard Rutland, an experienced inshore and offshore fishing guide in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and southward, will tell you he isn’t a treehugger. But he is someone who has personally witnessed the environmental changes around Upper Mobile Bay and elsewhere since he began fishing the area in 2007.
Although his evidence is purely anecdotal, Rutland claims the presence of both wetlands and SAV has increased dramatically in that time, and the area where ASPA intends to construct the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project is a productive fishery for commercial and recreational fishing. Aside from the crab boat that can be seen trawling the vicinity daily, Rutland said it also attracts abundant trout, redfish and flounder during the spring and fall.
“I’m very familiar with that area and I feel like they’re about to destroy something natural,” he said. “The submerged aquatic vegetation is coming up — there are areas I used to fish that I cannot even get a boat into now — so I feel like the grass growth is through the roof compared to what it used to be.”
Rutland said those observations extend to southern portions of the bay as well, and the expanded seagrass beds improve water quality and provide habitat for baitfish. But Rutland also argues the area’s natural resources, particularly sediments, have been historically mismanaged and he doesn’t believe the USACE’s or Port Authority’s primary interest is water quality.
“You’re putting a bunch of silt and sediment in the water that wouldn’t be there naturally, and who knows what effect that will have if it covers up oyster shells or grass beds,” Rutland said, noting the snowball effect. “The muddier the water, the less the light penetrates, which prohibits the seagrass from conducting photosynthesis and putting oxygen in the water.
“I think the project is a good idea, I just think it needs to be somewhere different.”
Similarly, environmental journalist and filmmaker Ben Raines, who had some familiarity with the proposal before the public comment period opened this month, believes the project is well intentioned, but poorly executed.
“Basically they are looking for permission to fill in a lot more of our bay with mud,” he said, noting historically, USACE or Port Authority has already filled in thousands of acres of wetlands elsewhere around the port using dredge material. While he acknowledged some “beneficial uses” can indeed be beneficial, Raines said the proposed Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project will destroy emerging SAV beds in an area of wetlands that have only been increasing in size since the Causeway was built in the 1920s, effectively “choking” natural sediment deposits.
During a tour of the area last week, Raines said the area is dynamic, and the port’s proposed dredge disposal project would be better suited for deeper water. As was revealed in the Dec. 2 public notice, it will be constructed in a hard-bottom area that is between 2 and 7 feet deep during low tide.
“This spot is changing all the time, becoming shallower and shallower, and our grass beds are increasing all the time,” he said. “This is a spot where we can have grass reemerge because Mobile Bay is so murky and silty; grass beds can only grow in very shallow water. The grass beds are the nursery for Mobile Bay. They are the source for almost everything you eat out of Mobile Bay. So when you think we’ve already lost half of those areas historically, you think it’s important to preserve what we have or what we can have.”
But the evidence is not just anecdotal. The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program has been surveying the seagrass beds of coastal Alabama since at least 1981, and has initially identified some 16 species of SAV during aerial surveys and site inspections. At least four surveys since 1981 found that “most SAV in coastal Alabama occurs in Upper Mobile Bay and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.”
In areas representing Upper Mobile Bay, visible SAV coverage increased from 3,959 acres in 2009 to 6,926 acres in 2015. Data from 2019 was used in conjunction with the project’s USACE permit application. A condition of the permit suggests the site “shall not fill within environmentally sensitive areas including existing subaquatic vegetation beds or existing wetlands,” and an accompanying map indicates seagrass beds are a few hundred yards northwest of the site.
But Dottie Byron of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who is performing an updated, more rigorous SAV survey for ASPA to accompany the project proposal, believes the footprint of wetlands in the area has been stable for the past 20 years, while the amount of SAV is likely to vary based on salinity.
Across the board, she said, SAV levels appear to have increased in Upper Mobile Bay, but her study will perform “ground truthings” aimed at the extent of the coverage and changes from season to season.
ASPA heavily relied on existing data for the project, but also gathered new data. In 2021, at least 70 soil borings were drilled in the sediment for a geotechnical survey. Bathymetric and cultural resource assessments were also updated.
During a tour of the site Monday organized by ASPA, Meg Goecker, Moffatt & Nichol’s senior scientist on the project, said there is “benthic habitat” — meaning it lives on or near the bottom — in the area, “but from the science we have, wetlands are much more productive.”
“We’re getting to have beneficial use of material that is otherwise lost to a landfill,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of private property around the bay where we can’t restore wetlands, so we have to find a spot in our already disturbed system that can handle a project like this. We want to avoid putting material near or on top of any area that would destroy SAV. We collected a lot of different studies and did some of our own to make sure we’re making the best habitat we can with the right elevation for this location.”
The ASPA’s plan begins with a 100-acre pilot project in the deepest part of the 1,200-acre project area. Over the course of two or three years, engineers intend to build an earthen containment dike and fill it with an average of 350,000 cubic yards of dredged sediment annually.
Once the sediment has reached the appropriate elevation and settled, engineers will remove a portion of the containment dike and carve tidal creeks and pools. The process will be repeated in 40- to 80-acre increments for the next 20 years until the entire site is full. Eventually, ASPA expects the site will be naturally planted and stabilized, and a haven for both fish and birds. But that process will take a long time, and there are a lot of variables.
A draft letter to USACE from the Sierra Club lists several “major environmental concerns” about the project based on the Dec. 2 public notice, and asks for a 30-day extension on the public comment period, an environmental impact study be performed and a public hearing to be held.
“The proposed project is a major long-term undertaking that would permanently change the environment of 1,200 productive acres of Upper Mobile Bay,” the letter reads. “While environmental benefits are posited with the proposed project … there are also considerable risks for significant environmental damages to occur to the Upper Bay should the containment dikes fail during a major hurricane event. In addition, over the 20-year period of construction, an increasing segment of the local commercial fishing community will be displaced from the 1,200 acres of the bay required by the proposed project. Lastly, the proposed project should have been included and analyzed as a disposal site to contain a portion of the increased maintenance dredging needs associated with deepening the Mobile Harbor Channel.”
The latter point would have required the project to undergo a more rigorous Environmental Impact Study process, the Sierra Club claims, which is an argument disputed by ASPA.
“Since the proposed project is to be constructed over a period of 20 years, there is a strong statistical probability that one or more major hurricanes will strike the proposed project,” the Sierra Club’s letter continues. “Under such extreme conditions, a reasonable individual would expect significant destruction would occur to the containment dikes. Failure of the dikes would not only result in the loss of any wetland vegetation that had become established within the affected containment cells, but the concurrent wave-driven erosion would disperse dredged material over a sizable portion of Upper Mobile Bay.”
The Sierra Club noted that despite fighting for a place at the table when the project was being discussed by IWG, it was not notified of the USACE’s public comment period until contacted by Lagniappe last week. Similarly, Mobile Baykeeper is listed as a member of IWG, but had not issued a public statement on the proposal until contacted by Lagniappe after the public comment period opened.
“We do have some concerns about it,” Baykeeper and Interim Director Cade Kistler said. “My hope is it ends up being a great restoration project, but my biggest concern right off the bat is the impetus is not because it’s the best thing to do for the environment and the best place to do it, but rather the Corps and the port would like to save money on transportation costs for dredge spoils.
“You’re taking a known and substituting an unknown. It sounds amazing in concept and when it works it’s awesome, but there is no guarantee you’re going to get the result you’re hoping for, especially in a really dynamic environment with wind, waves, storms, boats and shifting sands.”
Kistler said he had additional concerns about contaminants in the dredge material, the potential effects of sea-level rise on the project, and the lack of information about details.
“I think there needs to be more time before this project moves forward for permitting as it is now,” he said. “Mobile Baykeeper will have more information on our position and comments for the public to take action on this issue in the next week or so.”
The Mobile Bay NEP, which was also a member of IWG, suggested it would submit a letter in support of the project. Reached for comment last week, several local elected officials said they were either unfamiliar with the project or unprepared to make a statement of support or opposition.
Jason Johnson, a spokesman for Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, said the city has staff members “who have been following” the project, including some who attended the virtual public meeting in September.
“It’s not a city of Mobile project, but it obviously impacts the city,” he said. “Mayor Stimpson hasn’t had much direct involvement at this point in the planning phase, but he will be in contact with our staff and the leadership of the Alabama State Port Authority and Corps of Engineers moving forward.”
U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, a Mobile County Commissioner at the time IWG initially discussed the project, told Lagniappe last week he was not aware of it. Similarly, Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan, who has proposed his own plan to restore the Causeway with new parks, walking trails and water accesses, said he didn’t know about the project.
Sharee Broussard, a spokesperson for the Mobile County Commission, said the county recognizes the plan has been “publicly available” since it was placed on the federal Restore Act council’s 2015 funded priority list, and “at least one commissioner indicated receiving public meeting notices via non-personalized public outreach emails from Alabama State Port Authority.” Broussard said if the commissioners should choose to comment about the plan, they will do so in the USACE’s public comment forum.
In a statement from Director of Public and Government Affairs Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, the Baldwin County Commission said it was “aware” of the project.
“The Baldwin County Commission understands the important role that clean and safe waterways play in the quality of life our citizens and guests experience. As with any project of this magnitude, the Commission and staff will monitor the progress of this application closely and will continue to work on ways to protect and preserve our environment. One of the five priorities in the Commission’s strategic plan is titled ‘Protecting the Natural Environment.’ The priority was further explained by the Commission this way: “Protecting our precious natural environment is the responsibility of everyone – residents, businesses, government, and visitors. Our future and that of our children depends on us doing this important work.’”
The Baldwin County Legislative Delegation did not respond to a request for comment on the project this week.
Meanwhile, ASPA said it’s been transparent, and has sent correspondence to at least 20 elected officials or local governmental bodies including Carl, McMillan and Stimpson.
“The letter provided a project overview fact sheet and offered multiple ways for concerned individuals to become engaged,” the ASPA spokesperson noted, adding organizations including The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Coastal Foundation and The Peninsula Group have also been engaged.
“This is the ultimate beneficial use,” said former ASPA Director Jimmy Lyons, who retired in late 2020 after a 20-year career at the port, which included supervision of the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project proposal.
“The alternative is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is to dredge the material, put it in a contained area, dewater it and haul it off, and that probably costs $20 per cubic yard now,” he said. “There will be some net savings but environmentally, this method is far more friendly.”
Lyons also defended the transparency of the project.
“It was not a deep secret in a dark room in a corner somewhere; we were talking to the same people who would have to look at these documents to approve permits,” he said, recalling the meeting of IWG in 2015 where the other options were considered. “I don’t want to speak for others in the room, but my recollection was the consensus of the group was this is a good project.”
In response to Lagniappe’s questions, the Adams could not immediately say what “long-term” plans the agency has for dredge disposal beyond the life expectancy of the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project, but pointed out science is constantly changing and “continuous planning is occurring” to further define uses in the future.
Lyons said if the project is successful, perhaps it will be a benchmark for subsequent projects.
“If it proves to have the benefit we think it will, maybe we ought to do more,” he said. “Dredging is a fact of life on the Mobile River; it has to happen. We will be dredging there forever and this material will have to go somewhere.”
The USACE public comment period expires Jan. 3.
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