Deepening the Savannah River to make room for supersize cargo ships could risk contaminating the city's drinking water — unless somebody pays $40 million for a solution, Savannah's water chiefs said Thursday.
Their report to the mayor and city council contained a rare note of caution from City Hall regarding the proposed $600 million harbor deepening. Savannah leaders say the project is essential to make sure the city's busy port can accept giant ships expected along the East Coast after an expanded Panama Canal opens by the end of 2014.
Bob Scanlon, Savannah's director of water resources and public works, says a recent study by the Army Corps of Engineers shows that deepening the harbor from 42 feet to 48 feet will flush enough saltwater into the river to cause a significant spike in chlorides.
The chlorides themselves wouldn't be dangerous to drink. But Scanlon says they would make the water more corrosive, meaning higher and possibly toxic levels of lead and copper found in pipes and plumbing could end up in people's tap water.
"Corrosion is a very, very serious concern to us," Scanlon told city officials at a Thursday meeting.
The best way to fix the problem, Scanlon said, is to move an intake plant that sucks up river water for processing several miles upstream to where the water would be less salty. The Army Corps estimates the cost would be $40 million.
What's undecided is who would foot the bill. City officials want the Corps to tack it onto the federal government's tab for the deepening project. So far, the agency hasn't volunteered to do that.
The worst-case scenario, Savannah officials say, would be if the city has to come up with the $40 million itself and pass the cost along to taxpayers.
Dick Evans, Savannah's chief financial officer, told the city council Thursday that residents would likely see a 25 percent increase in their water bills if the city has to fund moving the water intake plant.
Mayor Otis Johnson said City Hall will protect its water supply, but also must avoid giving the impression that it harbors any opposition to deepening the river.
"We cannot let our concern be in any way perceived as a lack of support for this project," Johnson said.
The Army Corps is waiting for outside experts to review the agency's study before deciding whether the deepening project would pose any harm to Savannah's drinking water, agency spokesman Billy Birdwell said.
The federal government and the state of Georgia would share the cost for moving the Savannah intake plant, Birdwell said, if the Corps decides mitigation is needed.
City officials met Thursday with Scanlon and John Sawyer, head of Savannah's water and sewer department, after the Savannah Morning News reported on a 16-page document Sawyer had filed with the Army Corps outlining worries about possible threats to the city's drinking water.
The mayor said the news story prompted the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, Curtis Foltz, to call and ask if the city was withdrawing support for deepening the harbor.
Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest cargo port, which handled a record 2.8 million containers of imports and exports last year.