Budget cuts threaten federal dredging in Md.

April 12, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of dredging projects in Maryland waterways would come to an end under budget cuts proposed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At stake is about $4 million that the corps spends annually to deepen waterways for commercial and recreational boaters in Maryland, according to Monte Franklin, chief of the navigation branch for the corps' Baltimore District.

Among the most important projects that could be phased out are the Ocean City inlet, waterways on Smith Island and the Honga River in Dorchester County.

The cuts are part of a Clinton administration proposal to remove the corps from local projects with no national significance.

States may decide to pick up the cost for many of the projects. But it's unclear how many of them Maryland will be able to afford over the next few years, when Congress is likely to shift responsibility for any number of federal programs to the states.

In all, the Clinton administration has proposed cutting the corps' budget by nearly $2 billion over the next five years. The corps' budget is roughly $3.6 billion this year.

Congress will begin hearings on the Clinton budget plan next month. Both Republicans and Democrats have already been critical of the elimination of projects popular in their home states.

The corps would continue to oversee its biggest waterway projects, such as maintaining the Baltimore harbor, that affect more than one local area.

But it is not clear how the cuts would affect at least one current corps project -- the replenishment of the Ocean City beach -- according to Carol Sanders, a spokeswoman for the corps in Washington. The cost of the project is now shared by the federal, state and local governments.

Many of the 57 waterway projects on the corps' hit list, including the Annapolis and Rock Hall harbors, rarely require dredging. But several other heavily used waterways, most of them on the Eastern Shore, require dredging every few years.

For example, the Wicomico River, on which much of the fuel for the Eastern Shore is transported, is regularly dredged.

In Queen Anne's County, the federal dredging of Kent Narrows every few years is important to the hundreds of recreational boat owners who go north into the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay, said Bob Wilson, general manager of the Mears Point Marina there.

"We're having a real genuine problem with deep draft sailboats geting into Kent Narrows on the north," Mr. Wilson said.

"Kent Narrows has become a tourist attraction. It's very important to the health of Queen Anne's County," he said.

Likewise, Dennis Dare, city manager of Ocean City, said the dredging of the Ocean City inlet is vital to protecting the area's thriving commercial and charter-boat fishing business.

The federal government has spent more than $10 million for dredging in the Ocean City area in the past 60 years.

If the corps does end its role in local dredging, the state might be forced to pick up some or all of the cost, said Robert P. Gaudette, director of the state's waterway improvement program.

The state already pays for its dredging projects through a 5 percent excise tax on boat registrations.

Mr. Gaudette said it is premature to speculate on how the state might pay for the projects.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening successfully argued against any tax cuts this year, in part by reminding the General Assembly that the state must be ready to pick up costs passed on from Washington as the federal budget is cut.

"This is a good example of some of those hidden, unanticipated federal costs that we're trying to prepare for," Mr. Gaudette said.

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