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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Dredging to Keep Port of Hueneme Afloat for Years

May 25, 1999|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To officials at the Oxnard Harbor District, the future is looking big.

Big as in bigger ships, with larger holds and deeper drafts. So big, in fact, that the newest generation of cargo vessels won't be able to negotiate the Port of Hueneme's 35-foot-deep harbor.

Officials worry that could nudge the niche port into obsolescence and force existing and potential clients to use other ports, such as the one in Long Beach, which can accommodate ships with deeper drafts.

So, within the next two years the harbor will be deepened so ships can keep coming well into the next century--or at least until even larger ones are built.

"It's very important to stay ahead of the curve on this," said port marketing director Kam Quarles. "The ships of the future aren't going to wait, and if they can't dock here they'll just go somewhere else."

With international trade expected to increase worldwide by as much as 20% over the next decade, shipping lines are demanding larger ships to keep transport costs down.

This, in turn, is forcing ports to sink millions of dollars into improvements to deepen their channels to accommodate the larger ships.

The Port of Hueneme already has some ships that can only dock at high tide because their drafts are so deep.

"It's an important issue for ports in the U.S. and all over the world," said Jean Godwin, executive vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based American Assn. of Port Authorities. "If a port wants to survive in the future, it has to make these kinds of improvements. Otherwise they're not going to be used."

Quarles agreed, saying harbor depth is usually the first issue discussed with potential clients.

"If it's not deep enough, then the conversation kind of ends right there," he said.

*

Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, port officials plan to dredge the harbor to a depth of 40 feet, which would put the 90-acre port in the same league as major ports such as those in Boston, New York and Houston.

For decades the Port of Hueneme served as a hub for the area's offshore oil industry but has refashioned itself into an attractive berthing point for specialized cargo carriers.

Officials said that rather than competing with the sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle mostly container traffic, they are complementing a regional shipping infrastructure by specializing in non-container cargo.

After the project's completion, the port will be as deep as those in major U.S. cities and, officials hope, will be well-positioned to reap the benefits of increased global trade.

*

The $8-million project has been more than five years in the making. Officials hope to complete the work by March 2001. It will be more than a year before the actual work can begin.

It isn't uncommon for projects such as these to take so long to plan. Often they require extensive environmental and planning studies, which can take years to complete.

The California Coastal Commission last week gave tentative approval for the dredging. The port must now find a contractor to do the work and establish a cost-sharing plan with the federal government.

"It looks like we're nearing the end, which is good," Quarles said. "We're already pressing the limit with a few of the ships that come in."

Officials said the project will result in some temporary environmental impacts.

With increased turbidity, or murky water, caused by the dredging, sea floor animals such as shellfish may die off. Officials and analysts with the Corps of Engineers estimate that those colonies will repopulate within a year.

In addition, noise could be an issue for some nearby residents because the port's docks will need to be strengthened, which will require hammering in new supports with a pile driver.

"The impacts will be short-term," said Robert Blasberg of the Army Corps of Engineers, who coordinated the project's environmental studies. "In regard to the environment, we didn't find any long-term disruption."

Port officials have known for some time that the shallow depth of the harbor could be a liability.

In a report compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, ports across the country were alerted last year to the kinds of infrastructure improvements they would have to make to accommodate newer and much larger cargo vessels.

*

Barring unforeseen problems, port officials hope to begin the work in October 2000 with improvements to the wharf supports.

The actual dredging should take no longer than three months.

A total of 630,000 cubic yards of sand will be sucked from the harbor bottom. Most of it will be pumped to Hueneme Beach to help ease erosion. The rest will be dumped offshore.

The planned deepening of the harbor will be the latest in a series of recent capital improvements.

The port has increased its size by almost 50% with the addition of the International Agricultural Gateway, which will help boost imports of fruit and vegetables as well as cars.

Earlier this year, the port unveiled a 9-million-gallon liquid storage facility that is now being used by a European fertilizer manufacturer.

Port officials are also in negotiations with the Ventura County Transportation Commission, the county government and the city of Oxnard for the planned expansion of Rice Road to handle increased truck traffic from the port.

A total of $21.6 million has already been set aside for the road project, and officials are hoping to get it started by 2001.

"We're still trying to determine who is going to be the lead agency for it so we can put it out to bid," Quarles said. "But it's moving ahead."

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