A $4.3-million project to redredge shipping channels around the tip of the Interbay Peninsula is expected to keep big ships moving smoothly to and from Port Tampa.
The effort, which began three weeks ago, is considered routine maintenance and should be finished by early next year, said Ron Rutger, project team leader with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Rutger said the channel closest to Port Tampa, on the west side of the peninsula, has not been redredged in 20 years, allowing silt to build up.
Shipping interests said it wasn't a problem.
"It's got to be done every so often," said Ron Weber, vice president of Tampa Bulk Services, which sends 12 to 15 shiploads of cattle feed to Europe from Port Tampa every year. "It's like potholes in a road."
The work began off Picnic Island Park.
For two weeks, a barge with a crane on board parked a few hundred yards from the pier. The crane's steel maw scooped up dripping masses of bay bottom, one giant bite at a time.
Last week, the dredging company _ Lake Michigan Contractors Inc. _ temporarily stopped work near Picnic Island to concentrate on other segments of the project, Rutger said.
Rutger said unexpectedly heavy sand prevented the company from moving as fast as it wanted. Workers will return with additional equipment.
Plans call for removal of 300,000 cubic yards of sand _ enough to fill 17,000 dump trucks. Rutger said the sand will be dredged here and there, along 3 miles of channel, wherever silt has built up.
The existing channels are up to 500 feet wide and 45 feet deep.
On average, four ships a week travel to and from the facilities at Port Tampa, said Capt. Steve Cropper, chairman of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association.
Many are tankers carrying fuel, including jet fuel sent by pipeline from Port Tampa to MacDill Air Force Base.
Cropper said ships also use the channels to carry oil to the Florida Power plant in Pinellas County and coal to TECO's plant near Apollo Beach.
Oil tankers bound for Port Tampa can be up to 680 feet long, Cropper said. Barges moving products for National Gypsum Co. at Port Tampa are up to 750 feet long, he said.
Docks at Port Tampa are privately owned and not overseen by the Tampa Port Authority.
Still, said John Thorington, the authority's government relations director, deeper channels are a plus for anybody moving goods by water.
"It's vital not only to this port, but to ports around the country," he said.
The dredged-up sand may save a man-made lake.
It's being carted to Harbor Isles Lake in Pinellas County, where it will decrease the water level from 30 feet to 10 feet.
Rutger said the lake is plagued by fish kills because it is too deep and water can't circulate properly. Lowering the water depth should fix that problem, he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matussptimes.com.