PORT MANATEE -- Three years from now, Port Manatee officials will know for certain whether they will be able to bring bigger ships into the port's berths.
During two sets of presentations Wednesday and Thursday, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kicked off the first public review of a proposed deepening of the port's navigation channel and berths. The step signals the very beginning of a lengthy and expensive study that will make or break the port's plan to dredge those shipping areas down to 43 feet. That depth could accommodate some of the larger cargo ships that currently pass through the Panama Canal.
Shipping draft depth at the port is currently 40 feet.
The Corps held two public information sessions about the study at the port Wednesday, then briefed members of the Manatee County Port Authority Thursday. Last year, the Corps completed a $100,000 feasibility study that recommended further examination of adding up to 3 feet of draft depth to navigation and berthing areas. That is 2 feet fewer than port officials had hoped for when they first proposed the deepening.
Lacy Pfaff, a Corps project manager heading the study, said her agency will evaluate several options, including depth increases of 1, 2 and 3 feet. It could also recommend no deepening.
"We don't know exactly what we're going to do," she said Thursday.
The $700,000 federally-funded study will produce a document that the public will be review at two more stages.
Dave Sanford, the port's deputy executive director, said any option that adds depth to the port's waters will allow for bigger ships. Even though the Corps is not considering an authorized depth beyond 43 feet, the port could still wind up with 45 feet of water if the agency builds in an additional 2 feet of depth to prolong the time between maintenance dredging.
Sanford said he believes the port will be approved for deepening.
"We're pretty confident the economics will show a positive outcome," said.
A deeper port could accommodate larger cargo ships, including the Panamax-size ships. It will also make navigation easier for the current lineup of ships that use the port.
A 43-foot depth would be the same as the depth of the shipping channel that runs under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The Corps has no plans to make a deeper cut along that route.
The study will deal with all aspects of the project, including impacts on local wildlife and how to dispose of potentially millions of tons of sediment excavated out of the sea floor. Disposal options include pumping the waste into the port's land-based dredge spoil site and using it to build another section or "cell" onto the port's wildlife sanctuary island, Manbirtee Key.
Public comment on the proposed deepening project can be emailed to Aubree.G.Hershorin@usace.army.mil.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.