Ships ahoy!

Jeff vonKaenel

One of my most exciting childhood memories growing up in the Midwest was the two days I spent on my Uncle Joe’s gigantic coal boat, plying the Great Lakes from Cleveland to Detroit. I don’t know how many thousands of tons of coal that ship handled, but according to my mother, a fair portion of that coal had soiled my clothing by the time I got home. She still talks about how I nearly destroyed the carpet just walking upstairs.

Naturally, being on a vessel that big was thrilling for a 9-year-old, especially when Uncle Joe let me steer the ship. But now that I’m a little older, I’ve found an entirely different reason to be thrilled by big boats.

Large cargo vessels are a very energy-efficient way to quickly move huge amounts of freight from point A to point B. Ships use significantly less energy than airplanes, trucks and even rail transportation. That means less pollution and fewer trucks jamming up our freeways—which is why I’m excited about the ongoing project to dredge the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel.

The 43-mile-long channel runs from West Sacramento to Rio Vista; the dredging project will increase its depth from 30 feet to 35 feet. According to Port of West Sacramento manager Mike Luken, the additional 5 feet will enable the port to serve 75 percent of the world’s ships, as opposed to the current 40 percent. He said the dredging is currently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers top-rated navigation project in terms of cost-benefits analysis.

In practical terms, this means the port will be able to increase the number of current ships using the channel from 45 per year to 200 per year. The project will create 300 to 500 jobs for our area and potentially remove thousands of trucks from the jampacked Interstate 5 and Interstate 80 corridors.

It takes roughly 1,000 diesel trucks to unload and transport cargo from a ship docked in Stockton or San Francisco to Sacramento. After the dredging is completed, the Port of West Sacramento will be able to handle an additional 157 ships per year, potentially avoiding 157,000 truck trips. In addition to not clogging up our highways, a single large ship emits significantly less air pollution than 1,000 trucks. If the Obama administration follows through with plans to restrict the use of low-sulfur fuel oil while ships are traveling inland, ships will burn even cleaner.

Luken says they’ve already contracted for another 118 ships to use the port. The dredging project appears to be going full steam ahead. Meanwhile, at 58 years of age, I’ve done a 180, from the boy who saw ships as the ruination of his mother’s carpet to the man who sees ships as part of the solution to saving the environment.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.