File photo.

Plans to deepen channels at the Port of Long Beach, which would allow ships to navigate the trade hub more efficiently, took a step forward this month with the publication of the final feasibility report for the proposed project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the nearly 400-page document, which analyzed five potential paths forward—including leaving the port channels as they are—and recommended a plan that would:

  • Deepen the Approach Channel to 80 feet and the West Basin Channel, Pier J Basin and berths to 55 feet;
  • Build a Pier J Approach Channel, a turning basin outside of Pier J South and a new dredge electric substation at Pier J South; and
  • Ease bends in the Main Channel and make improvements to the Pier J breakwaters.

The project and its associated costs, the report found, would total roughly $156 million, with the federal government paying $56 million and the Port of Long Beach funding the rest. Over 50 years, though, the work would cost about $5.9 million annually—but generate $21 million each year.

Representatives for the Army Corps did not respond to a request for comment, but the port’s Managing Director of Engineering Sean Gamette said in an interview that the project could have a significant impact on the port’s operations.

“This is an exciting one,” Gamette said. “Not a lot of people like to talk about waterways, dredging—you know, ‘Well, you’re just pulling out a bunch of mud.’ But it actually is very exciting.”

Deepening the waterways, in some cases by as little as 4 feet, would allow some ships to enter and exit the Port of Long Beach much more quickly, according to the report, which would ultimately lower national transportation costs.

Right now, larger container vessels have to either wait for high tide to enter and leave the port’s West Basin and Pier J Basin, or they have to carry lighter loads to decrease their depth. Liquid bulk ships, meanwhile, must enter and exit the two-mile-long Approach Channel one at a time or face the same challenges as their container-toting counterparts; those limitations have historically impacted 5-10% of crude oil imports—about 1-3 million tons—per year, the Army Corps found, and that share has grown to 15% more recently.

“The whole basis for this recommended project is to increase transportation efficiencies for container vessels and for liquid bulk vessels that call our port,” Gamette said.

Container vessels, when fully loaded, can go 52 feet deep, according to Gamette, so deepening the channels they use from the current 50-foot depth to 55 feet will make a significant difference in their ability to navigate the port. Larger liquid bulk vessels, meanwhile, can be 70 feet deep, he said. But those ships need much more under-keel clearance, so deepening the Approach Channel from 76 feet to 80 feet will also be crucial.

While the ability to move ships in and out more quickly would have widespread economic benefits, Gamette noted that the project would also help Long Beach in other ways.

“Let’s say a container ship, a state-of-the-art container ship, is waiting on a tide to come into the port,” he said. “If it didn’t have to wait, it reduces air emissions, for example, right? Because it can come right in and plug into shore power. It’s also loaded to maximum capacity, so we’ve got economy-of-scale there. We can improve our air quality through the project because of those kinds of benefits.”

And, of course, moving vessels more efficiently could help ease the type of congestion the port is currently experiencing.

But the completion of the feasibility report is just one of many more steps that must be completed before work can even begin on the project—let alone until its benefits are realized.

First, the Army Corps’ Chief of Engineers must sign an approval of the report and its recommendations—a decision that’s expected to come next week. Then, reports on the project’s environmental impacts must be approved before plans to move forward can be included in the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. The Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners must also weigh in.

That’s also to say there are multiple steps ahead that could prove to be stumbling blocks for the project. But if all goes according to plan, Gamette said, construction could begin in 2024 or 2025 and last about two years.

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.