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In a word, the Port of Savannah is huge.

The Georgia Ports Authority’s main terminal at the port sprawls over 1,200 acres and is the fourth-busiest container port in the United States. Over the years, the shipping channel has been enlarged from its natural 17-foot depth and is now 42 feet deep at low tide. And it may soon get even deeper.

The ports authority wants to deepen the Savannah River channel to 48 feet to make room for the larger ships the industry is adopting. It’s an enormous undertaking that threatens to fundamentally alter the port’s entire ecosystem.

The project, which has been under study for years, is reaching a critical stage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to issue a draft environmental impact study in August. The Georgia Conservancy’s coastal team has been closely tracking this project for more than a decade in an effort to protect the estuary’s long-term environmental health.

The Conservancy co-sponsored a tour of the port in April to let the public get a close look at what’s at stake. About 30 people hopped aboard a cruise boat to tour the area.

Deepening the port will make it even tougher for oxygen to get to the bottom of the river, increasing the size of the no-oxygen “dead zone.” The project could also send salt water even farther upriver, causing the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to lose up to 10 percent of its remaining freshwater wetlands. Also of concern: the impact of a deeper harbor on the habitats of the striped bass and the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Some steps could help mitigate the project’s impact, though they would be expensive. Huge “bubblers” similar to those found in household aquariums could be installed to help oxygenate the river. And some cuts could be made in the Savannah River delta to help “replumb” the river, preventing salty water from traveling too far upstream.

Even if those steps are taken, issues remain. How long after the project is completed will the Corps of Engineers monitor the potential environmental impacts? How will the Corps react should the mitigation efforts not perform as predicted?

“We deserve to have a long-term devotion of resources and attention to make sure that once the channel is deepened, we don’t lose the values and functions of the estuary,” said Will Berson, interim director of the Georgia Conservancy’s coastal office.

This story was written by Paul Donsky of the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental advocacy and conservation organization based in Atlanta that strives to protect Georgia’s natural resources. To learn more, visit www.georgiaconservancy.org.