TAMPA — Measured by acreage, Port Tampa Bay already is the largest seaport in Florida, with a total of 5,000 acres, about 1,000 of them zoned for industry with deep-water access.
Still, as it plans for the future, the port is looking to create 67 new acres of land for its growing cargo and container operations by dredging and filling part of East Bay near the Tampa Shrimp Docks.
That's because all but about 40 of those 1,000 acres are already being used, leased or spoken for.
"In a few years from now, the port will be out of deep water berths and land, and that's why we're trying to get ahead of the curve," Port Tampa Bay director of engineering Patrick Blair said Tuesday.
The nonprofit group Tampa Bay Waterkeeper opposes the project.
"This proposal is not in the public interest," said Andrew Hayslip, the group's executive director and waterkeeper. "This proposal is in the interest of Port Tampa Bay. The economic contribution of Port Tampa Bay is noted and respected, but it pales in comparison to the economic contribution of healthy fisheries and a healthy bay."
The project, called East Port, has been in the port's master plan for 2030 for several years, is estimated to cost $250 million to $300 million and could take 15 years or more to complete, Blair said. The work would create four new deep-water berths and three shallower ones. Because of its size, the new uplands would be created in phases as demand and resources allow. Port officials expect getting a permit will take about a year.
Ringed on three sides by rail yards, bustling cargo docks, metal recycling operations and a massive fertilizer warehouse, East Bay was dredged in the 1960s.
"A highly altered industrial basin," said Chris Cooley, the port's director of environmental affairs. It has a mud bottom with no sea grasses, corals or hard bottom. "There's really no natural habitat left."
But the corps says the dredging could impact manatees and three different types of sea turtles, as well as smalltooth sawfish, shrimp, stone crabs, spiny lobsters, red drum and dozens of other fish species.
"Our initial determination is that the proposed action would have a substantial adverse impact on (essential fish habitat) or federally managed fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico," the corps said in a notice seeking the public's comments on the project. The agency said it will work with the National Marine Fisheries Service as it considers the permit.
To compensate for the loss, the port proposes doing a $13.7 million mitigation project to restore about 20 acres north of the dredging site and near the city of Tampa's McKay Bay Nature Park.
The port would remove previously dredged material and ash from the city's garbage incinerator from the mitigation area, digging down to the natural bay bottom, Cooley said. It would then plant the site with mangroves and marsh grass and connect it to a previously restored area.
"It will create excellent bird habitat and fishery habitat," Cooley said. "We feel like we're going above and beyond the mitigation requirements."
The port ultimately proposes to place 7,080 feet — or more than a mile and a third — of bulkhead around the 67-acre area, which would be filled in with a mix of material dredged from East Bay, removed from the mitigation area and taken from existing spoil islands.
The port looked at a different approach to the construction — building a deck supported by piles driven into the bay bottom. That, however, would cost four times as much — an estimated $1.2 billion — and could run into costlier complications due to the clay- and silt-heavy sediments in East Bay, the length of the piles that could be needed and the ongoing maintenance costs to what would be a forest of pilings, officials said.
Send to comments by the end of February to:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
10117 Princess Palm Ave., Suite 120
Tampa, FL 33610