Monday, December 20, 2010

Sand Island Lighthouse to get its island back


What you see on the right is an artist’s depiction of what Sand Island probably looked like before the Mobile Ship Channel was authorized and dredging commenced just before World War II.

The channel was a necessity, and the Port of Mobile was an important shipping and shipbuilding location for the war. But the channel also robbed the coast’s sediment transport system of material that build Sand Island, Little Sand Island and Dauphin Island. Those islands continue to morph and move with the currents of the Gulf of Mexico.

Beginning in March 2011, the US Army Corps of Engineers will begin placing millions of cubic yards of sand around the lighthouse to restore—in part—the island that the Corps’ dredging practices have destroyed.

Considerable debate exists over whether it’s appropriate to use federal funds to restore an almost uninhabitable island, especially in a time of soaring deficits and out of control spending. Sand Island Lighthouse has an important role in the history of the Gulf Coast. Not doing anything means eventually, the lighthouse will be no more. That would be akin to allowing the Appomattox Courthouse to be reclaimed by the forest, or simply abandoning the Alamo to the sands of West Texas. Tragic. My take on this—the federal government caused the problem at Sand Island, so the federal government should be on the hook to at least help mitigate it and provide a solution. Tens of millions have been spent dredging the Mobile Ship Channel, and the cost savings to commerce using the channel have produced tens upon tens of millions in economic productivity.

The Corps is becoming a “greener” agency, using multiple output projects that include environmental or cultural resource outputs as well as the traditional national and regional economic outputs. These features typically add insignificant to moderate sums to project costs, but the environmental and cultural resource outputs are almost always significant. I take a lot of heat from my conservative colleagues over my respect for the Corps as an agency, which I deflect by pointing out that the Corps’ budget is a creation of the Congress, not the agency itself. If allowed to, the Corps will eventually develop cost effective methods of maintaining ship channels like the one in Mobile Bay that continue to provide transportation cost savings and have positive impacts on the environment as well.