A century ago, the Houston Ship Channel was nothing more than a bayou meandering into the Gulf of Mexico. Today, massive ocean-going vessels carrying thousands of containers zip in and out of the channel, where a barge collided with a ship over the weekend, spilling 170,000 gallons of gooey tar-like oil into the water.
Though the cause of Saturday's crash is still under investigation, the increase in ship congestion highlights the need for more maintenance, dredging, high-tech navigation systems and other improvements to ensure safe travel through the narrow waterway. Add to this a domestic oil boom, exports of liquid natural gas, the expected expansion of the Panama Canal and the whiff of possible trade relations with Cuba and the growth takes on broad economic and safety implications.
"If it's not done properly there could be a safety issue," said Thomas Marian, general counsel of Houston-based Buffalo Marine Service, a company that has a fleet of 36 barges and 18 push-boats whose primary purpose is to refuel vessels going in and out of the area.
About 95 percent of the nation's commerce moves across water. Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, credited with creating the waterborne highway from Brownsville, Texas -- on the Mexican border -- to Panama City, Fla., is unable to keep up with the growing maintenance responsibilities of the channels, ports and canals that facilitate this trade.
Port authorities nationwide pay into a fund designed to cover maintenance costs. The Port of Houston pays about $100 million annually into the fund, but gets back only about $25 million -- about half of the $50 million needed to maintain one of the world's busiest channels, said Roger Guenther, the Port of Houston's executive director.
The port typically handles about 70 ships daily, plus 300 to 400 tugboats and barges. And Gulf of Mexico traffic -- especially of large ships -- is expected to increase with the opening next year of the Panama Canal expansion. Ports will need to have 50-foot deep channels, no air draft restrictions and state-of-the-art infrastructure to meet the needs of the biggest ships, Army Corps spokeswoman Sandra Arnold explained in an email.
Already, larger ships are moving through the area. Vessels from East Asia that didn't arrive in Houston just 10 years ago now make up 25 percent of the port's business, Guenther said. Many of these ocean-going vessels need at least 45-foot depths. The Corps has deepened some areas of the channel to accommodate the larger vessels, and the port is investing more than $700 million of its own money to remain competitive and allow ships to sail safely, Guenther said.
Commander Gary Messmer, the Coast Guard's chief of prevention for the Houston-Galveston sector, said ships wait anchored offshore -- imagine a waterborne parking lot -- as pilots try to minimize contact between the largest vessels. Ideally, there should be separate channels for ships going in opposite directions, he said.
"Everybody always benefits from big, wide and straight and deep ... but that's an expensive proposition and that's not going to happen," Messmer said. "We have to deal with the land that we have and the bay that we have."
And so the Coast Guard, pilots, the port and others involved in overseeing navigation are aided by ship transponders and a four-day window to decide when, how and if a ship can enter the area, trying to safely maneuver vessels through a region that was never supposed to be a bustling port city.
In 1900, Houston was a sleepy inland town, while Galveston had a hugely lucrative port. But after a massive hurricane nearly wiped out Galveston that September, killing thousands of people in the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, planners decided to move the port inland. They dug out the bayous, creating what is now the 52-mile long Houston Ship Channel, where more than 150 private industrial companies operate alongside the Port of Houston in the nation's largest petrochemical complex.
The port is ranked first in the country for foreign waterborne tonnage, first in U.S. imports and first in export tonnage. Each year, more than 200 million tons of cargo is transported on some 8,000 vessels and 200,000 barge calls. Underneath is a web of pipelines -- most from the 1950s -- that transport crude oil and refined products.
Besides the traffic issues, there are also environmental concerns, said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy's director in Texas.
The Gulf of Mexico is the backbone of U.S. energy independence, its fish basket, an increasingly busy shipping channel, an economic power horse, a drainage basin for 40 percent of the country's waterways and an important cultural resource, she said. To ensure the Gulf is healthy, investments are needed in mangrove wetland areas, shoreline protections and in oyster reef restoration.
"The more we ask of it, the faster it's going to go," Huffman said, likening the Gulf -- as the hardest working waterway in the country -- to an elite athlete who needs to train and stay healthy to win. "It would be like trying to run a marathon without being hydrated."