West Coast
A large container ship is docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., on April 4, 2023. (Photo: Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

CA -The Bay Area’s economy of mud: Dredging concerns threaten jobs, $100 billion in assets

With 99% of the goods that go to Northern California in the balance, shallow San Francisco Bay tries to make way for newer, bigger ships

At the Port of Oakland on a recent weekday, trucks, cranes and container-laden ships moved goods across the sprawling 1,300-acre complex with the precarious precision of a Rube Goldberg machine.

Mere blocks from downtown Oakland, the port operates essentially as a city within a city. It’s the ninth biggest port in the country and the first stop for 99% percent of containerized goods moving through Northern California.

In the whir of logistics and machinery, it’s easy to forget that everything happening here is made possible by one unsung, unglamorous and Sisyphean task: hauling mud from San Francisco Bay.

That dredging process has enormous implications for the future of shipping and transportation in the Bay Area, and may hold the key to protecting local shorelines.

“The bottom line is that if we don’t dredge, none of this happens,” said port spokesperson Robert Bernardo, looking out over stacks of containers. “Period.”

San Francisco Bay has long been known as one of the world’s best-run and largest natural harbors. It’s one of the primary reasons that the Bay Area has become the metropolitan area it is today. But in the era of modern shipping, one of the natural features of the bay has posed a growing challenge — although an enormous protected harbor, it is mostly shallow. Its average depth is about 12 feet, only slightly deeper than a swimming pool. Container ships require water at least 30 feet deep, if not more.

Dredging solves that problem.

Every year in the summer and fall, 3 million to 6 million cubic yards of sediment are removed from the floor of the bay to make room for ships to travel. Enormous excavators hung off the side of dredging scows drag silt up from the bay floor to create underwater pathways for our Pelotons, couches and televisions.

For the past 20 years, the process of disposing of all that extra mud has been governed by what agencies refer to as the “40-40-20” split. Over the course of five years, 40% of the mud dredged from the bay is dumped into the Pacific Ocean, 40% is designated for “beneficial reuse,” such as restoring wetlands, and 20% is disposed of elsewhere in the bay.

In recent years, agencies have started to rethink the math.

“That was an old paradigm. It served us well,” said John Coleman, the CEO of the Bay Area Planning Coalition, a local nonprofit focused on sustainable industry. “But when they developed it years ago, climate change wasn’t on the mind of anybody.”

The Pacific was an easy dumping ground. For a long time, dumping sediment in the bay was the cheapest and safest way to get rid of it. By the 1980s, a hundred years of industry filled the bottom with toxins.

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