A broader look at the potential benefits of increased infrastructure has spurred the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to grow plans for a bigger port in Nome.
Utilizing authority approved by Congress in 2016, Corps of Engineers officials in Alaska released their new, $611 million proposal to overhaul the city-owned Port of Nome on Dec. 31, Alaska Chief of Civil Works Bruce Sexauer said.
The plan, which would allow the remote Western Alaska port to accommodate larger tankers and cruise ships among other vessels, builds off of a $210 million proposal in early 2015 to expand the area of protected water in front of Nome and dredge the area for larger vessels.
That design was generated in response to Shell’s oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea at the time. When Shell announced that it had come up empty and would cancel its offshore Arctic exploration work later that year, the corresponding plan to renovate Nome’s port to better handle oil and gas industry support vessels was scrapped as well.
Without the prospect of long-term oil and gas activity in the region, the direct need for expanding the Port of Nome couldn’t be economically justified, Sexauer said.
However, Congress responded in 2016 by growing the scope of potential benefits the Corps is permitted to evaluate when considering bolstering marine infrastructure in Alaska.
The 2016 Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA bill, included a provision allowing Corps officials to consider the “viability of regions” when thinking about ports in Alaska, rather than strictly looking at a direct and immediate cost-benefit review for a given project.
“We could look at the entire region around Nome with all the remote villages and how their viability may be positively affected by a deep-draft port, so that was the basis for this analysis,” Sexauer said in an interview. “It’s more of a regional assessment that Congress authorized us to utilize to justify the project.”
The primary benefit to residents of Nome and outlying communities would be potentially lower-cost goods brought in by larger vessels.
The latest draft Port of Nome Modification Feasibility Study contemplates several expansion options, but the plan recommended by the Corps calls for roughly doubling the length of the port’s existing west causeway to reach approximately 2,100 feet farther into Norton Sound with a nearly 1,400-foot breakwater to protect harbor entrance from incoming waves. The L-shaped barrier would also hold two new 450-foot and one new 600-foot dock to handle the larger vessels that have started calling on Nome, according to Sexauer.
The existing east causeway-breakwater would be demolished and replaced with a larger, 3,900-foot causeway-breakwater that would greatly expand the port’s outer basin. Approximately three-quarters of the material from the existing east causeway would be used to build its replacement, according to the study.
The bigger outer port basin would also be dredged deeper — from 22 feet currently to 28 feet — and the three new docks would be near the end of the longer west causeway-breakwater in an area dredged to at least 40 feet deep.
The 2015 plan called for adding 2,150 feet to the existing west causeway and dredging the harbor entrance channel to a maximum depth of 28 feet.
Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, state lawmakers and Defense and Coast Guard leaders in the state for years have emphasized what they believe is a need for an Arctic deep-draft port in Western Alaska as shipping traffic through the Bering Strait increases as a result of the ever-receding sea ice.
While not technically in Arctic waters, a renovated Port of Nome has been identified as the most practicable northern location for harboring emergency response, industry support and research vessels in Western Alaska.
Nome Port Director Joy Baker said a team from the city has been actively working with the Corps on every aspect of the project; she estimated they’ve gone through about a dozen rough design iterations for the project over the past year.
A primary goal for city officials is to relieve congestion at the port and generally make it easier for vessels of all sizes to utilize the facilities.
“The depth is a big issue because we’ve only got 22 feet right now,” Baker said.
Baker added that she expects more activity at the port from fishing fleets as populations of cod, Pollock and other species historically confined by water temperatures to the southern Bering Sea move north with warming water over the long term.
More and more vessel companies from multiple industries are already using Nome for refueling and crew changes, she said.
Sexauer said fuel companies have started using larger vessels that anchor outside of the current harbor and lighter fuel to smaller vessels for transport to Nome or nearby villages since the last port expansion was contemplated in 2015 and the new plan could get those operations into protected water.
More and larger cruise ships have also started touring the Bering Strait and Arctic waters to the north and though the port wasn’t designed specifically for them, it would also provide more facilities for cruise vessels, Sexauer said.
He also noted that while less winter sea ice has exposed the region’s coast to more damaging winter storms that have caused major erosion problems in coastal communities, the warming has also allowed for longer construction seasons.
“There’s a greater need for raw materials and supplies and fuel to meet those needs of a longer construction season,” Sexauer said.
If the draft port design is finalized with few modifications — a determination made by Army Corps of Engineers leaders in Washington, D.C. — it could be up for legislative authorization late this year when Congress is expected to consider the next WRDA bill, according to Sexauer.
“We are working very yard to get this project approved in time for consideration in the next authorization bill,” he said.
However, ultimately constructing the new infrastructure would be contingent upon Congress approving to spend the $340 million federal portion of the project in a separate appropriations bill.
Baker said the city has conceptual plans to come up with its share of the project costs — roughly $270 million — that include public-private partnerships and federal grants but more solid financing plans can’t be made at least until the project is approved by Corps leaders.
Though it’s just a draft at this point, Baker is confident this project will move forward this time because it almost has to, she said; there is no other place on the Western Alaska coast for large vessels to resupply or seek repairs. She also expects the oil industry to return to the region at some point.
“There is demand for search and rescue and oil spill response in the Arctic. The traffic is increasing — there’s no question,” Baker said. “I think folks are starting to realize we need to protect the northern coast.”
The Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District is accepting comments on the Nome port proposal until Jan. 30.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.