Navigating America’s Waterways

2016-09-12T14:02:00+00:00 September 12, 2016|
(Click to enlarge) U.S. Coast Guard. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

(Click to enlarge) (Click to enlarge) U.S. Coast Guard. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Imagine trying to navigate through a 500-foot wide waterway in a 110-foot-wide boat containing 65,000 tons of cargo with a dangerous storm bearing down on you. Now imagine doing that without the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) or nautical charts, using only your eyesight to keep you and your cargo safe.

Fortunately, recreational and commercial boaters have access to both GPS and nautical charts, thanks to ongoing work by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). To ensure our nation’s marine transportation system is safe, secure, and efficient, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation and Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a joint hearing to examine the advent of new changes in navigational technology and to increase interagency cooperation. 

In his opening statement, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Bob Gibbs (OH-7) explained how “advanced technology can help improve navigation safety and advance economic security.” Improvements in technology reduce risk to both the maritime environment (and the people and cargo utilizing it) and improve navigational efficiency of the U.S. Marine Transportation System (MTS). The MTS includes 25,000 miles of coastal and inland waterways and ports and is traversed by nearly all cargo involved in our country’s overseas trade (which contributes approximately $650 billion annually to the national gross domestic product).  

The USCG, NOAA, and USACE each have distinct jobs, but significant interagency cooperation is also required. NOAA surveys and produces nautical charts; USACE reviews and maintains navigable channels; and the USCG maintains government-owned physical aids to navigation (ATON), such as lighthouses, buoys, and beacons. Rear Admiral Shephard Smith (Director, Office of Coast Survey, NOAA) testified on NOAA’s collaborative efforts with the USCG on the ATON database to make chart changes and with USACE on hydrographic surveys, which measure the earth’s ocean and coastal areas. NOAA and the USCG are also working together on surveys for possible shipping lanes in the North Bering and Chukchi Seas and to minimize risk and environmental impacts in the Arctic.

New technologies are improving safety. Navigational charts, which have already been updated to an electronic format rather than paper, now reflect monthly changes and even use crowdsourced data in popular boating and fishing areas. Hydrographic surveys, using improved technology, review a 43,000 nautical square mile area of seafloor near ports, waterways, and some parts of the Alaskan coast, reducing risk to ships by showing previously-undetectable obstacles. NOAA has begun to use unmanned survey systems that will complement, rather than compete, with manned systems that are already in place. Another area that has seen changes to be more cost-effective (which was a concern expressed by Representative Mark Sanford (SC-1)) are buoys, which are being updated to require less maintenance.

The three agencies will continue to work together, using new technologies, to improve the U.S. navigation system as the MTS continues to face increasing demand.