When Nome Mayor Denise Michels envisions the future of her city's port, she sees some of the world's largest cargo and cruise ships mooring there -- perhaps alongside one of the U.S. Coast Guard's polar class icebreakers -- en route to or from a melting Arctic.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan for the harbor falls 7 feet short of that vision.
As the climate changes and open-water season in the Arctic expands, hundreds of vessels are starting to sail through it. Some are operating in support of oil and gas exploration in the region; others are transiting newly ice-free routes such as the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage. As those ships embark on stretches of sea along Alaska's western and northern shore that are hard to reach in an emergency, they're more vulnerable to accidents.
The growth in Arctic maritime traffic has officials recognizing the need for a deep-water port. After years of studying options, the Corps of Engineers released a draft proposal earlier this year recommending the Port of Nome be expanded as the first major infrastructure project in the region.
The Corps' plan calls for a new dock and an entrance channel with a depth of 28 feet -- a depth that could accommodate many ships that might otherwise have to sail about 800 miles south of the Chukchi Sea to dock at Dutch Harbor.
And while Mayor Michels and other Nome leaders are relieved the city won out over other options (including Port Clarence), they're also asking why the Corps isn't planning a port deep enough to support some of the biggest ships -- including polar class icebreakers.
"What we want is to make sure that they don't limit us (from) future growth," Michels said in a phone interview on Thursday. "We want to be able to say Nome is a destination spot."
Michels said only about 30 ships docked at the Port of Nome in 1990 and that number grew to 446 in 2013. But dozens had a draft that was too deep; those vessels had to anchor offshore.
Adding another dock at Nome's port would cost an estimated $212 million, including the dredging, construction and infrastructure, costs which will be split among the federal, state and local governments. That depth should be able to host most of the ships that would otherwise be forced dock at Dutch Harbor -- just not all of them.
But it excludes polar icebreakers, such as the Coast Guard's Healy, which is the nation's only ship traveling to the Arctic every summer for research. It also excludes future Navy ships and some of the world's biggest cruise ships, such as the Crystal Serenity, which plans to sail from New York to Seward through the Northwest Passage.
But dredging Nome's harbor an additional 7 feet could cost another $100 million, with minimal financial benefits in return, said Bruce Sexauer, chief of the civil works branch for the Corps's Alaska district.
"There's just not a sufficient number of vessels that will use it," Sexauer said. "There's a certain break point of where you are accruing benefits and it offsets the next increment of costs."
He said the break point is 28 feet and it's the Corps' responsibility to propose to Congress a cost-effective plan.
Dredging to 35 feet, which is what local officials want, is not, according to the Corps.
Their figures included estimates -- based on the rate of maritime growth -- of the number of trips to Dutch Harbor they could prevent ships from having to make. The Corps also considered how much it costs to ship supplies to Nome versus Dutch Harbor. Then they calculated the hourly costs of operating the ships sailing through this area, and how much time and money a closer port could save. Those numbers were compared to how much the government would spend on the port.
Sexauer said during an Alaska House Transportation Committee meeting in March that dredging to 28 feet would save ships an annual average of $11.5 million. The average annual costs of the dock, if it were a mortgage, would be about $9.2 million. That adds up to an improvement to the nation's economy of $2.3 million a year, he said.
Sexauer said in a phone interview there are only a handful of existing ships that could save time and money if the proposal was to dredge to 35 feet. The Healy in summer anchors close to Nome's existing port and sends small boats in to get supplies or pick up and drop off people. It also travels to Dutch Harbor to refuel and pick up new scientists between missions, but that's a single trip.
Michels and state representatives who are pushing for a deeper port argue the Corps's calculations leave out several important nuances. Some of those came up at the meeting in March, when Sexauer made the first public presentation of the 900-page draft. The committee members spent most of their time trying to understand why the Corps didn't propose a 35-foot-deep port. Some of the representatives said it seemed peculiar, shortsighted and shallow.
Co-chair of the committee Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, pointed out the proposal's projections are based on current growth rates that cannot anticipate how rapidly the climate will change. Michels mentioned it doesn't take into account future search and rescue efforts that might require big ships to use a dock to deliver fuel. In a subsequent phone interview, she also mentioned the possibility one of the larger vessels, which currently anchors offshore, might need repairs that require a dock.
Paul Labolle, spokesman for the committee co-Chair Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, said Foster will lobby for a deeper port when the Corps' final proposal goes before Congress. The agency just closed its public comment period on the draft and expects to have a final report ready by early next year.
"It just seems odd that you would build an Arctic access port… when you can't get U.S. icebreakers in and out of it," Labolle said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name and incorrectly reported the title of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee. Bruce Sexauer is the chief of the civil works branch for the Corps's Alaska district, not the chief of planning.