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NOAA Prepares To Phase Out Navigation Response Teams

By MarEx 2012-03-21 11:20:30

Operating in a constrained fiscal environment, NOAA has prioritized its activities and limited investments toward the core services that protect life and property and support job creation and economic growth. As a result, NOAA has had to make tough budget choices in balancing the needs of our mission. One of these tough choices affects how NOAA fulfills our mandates for nautical charting and emergency response.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey deploys six navigation response teams (NRTs) to work in the nation’s busiest ports and harbors, surveying for dangers to navigation and updating NOAA’s nautical chart products. In January, Coast Survey laid out the 2012 and 2013 plans for the navigation response team surveys in critical port and coastal areas. The President’s FY 2013 budget request, however, proposes a $2.3 million budget cut that would eliminate the NRTs, if enacted by Congress.

If the navigation response team program terminates on September 30, the last day of the 2012 fiscal year, NOAA will likely slow or bring to an end numerous nautical chart updates planned for high-transit areas around the nation’s coasts. These include the waters off of Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Biloxi, Mississippi; portions of the Texas coast; Los Angeles and Long Beach; Thunder Bay, Michigan; Eastern Long Island Sound; and Narragansett Bay.

The navigation response teams are also the agency’s “first responders” to the nation’s maritime community, surveying for dangers to navigation in order to speed the reopening of ports after hurricanes and other emergencies. Port authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard include the NRTs in their Port Recovery Plans, and the federal Maritime Infrastructure Recovery Plan charges NOAA with the responsibility to assess sea-floor conditions. Without NRTs, the responsibility for rapid response hydrographic surveys will shift from NOAA to other first responders, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and FEMA, or to the ports. NOAA may be able to task one of its deeper draft vessels to an emergency on a reimbursable basis, if one is nearby and available, but this will likely result in longer response times. Thus, ports and the commercial shipping industry may need to make alternate plans to acquire surveys for underwater dangers to navigation if they are to quickly reopen waterways to vessel traffic.

Ports along the Southeast and Gulf Coast are currently planning their emergency response procedures and assets for the coming hurricane season, which does not officially end until November 30. Prudent planning will consider that NOAA’s navigation response teams may not be available to assist them during the final months of the season.

A new day for surveying
Near-shore and port surveying, often conducted with small and nimble boats, has been a core mission of the Coast Survey since its inception in 1807. During the Civil War, Coast Survey field parties did river reconnaissance for the Army and conducted surveys for Union blockade squadrons.

During World War II, as the Coast Survey’s larger vessels were transferred to the Navy, Coast Survey conducted surveys from small boats in the nation’s bays and along the coasts, charting coastal areas needed for military anchorages and shipbuilding, and locating dangers to navigation caused by enemy submarines. Their work also resulted in a number of special nautical charts used in the antisubmarine campaign and other military operations.

Nowadays, the navigation response teams validate approximately 9,000 navigational chart features each year. In 2011, the teams discovered 49 signi?cant dangers in navigable waterways, which the U.S. Coast Guard then reported to mariners through its Notice to Mariners system. Each year, the teams respond to about ten urgent requests for assistance from marine transportation officials across the nation.

In anticipation of the program elimination, NOAA navigation managers will be meeting with maritime stakeholders over the coming months, to chart a new way forward for meeting the near-shore survey needs that are NOAA’s federal responsibility.

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Source: NOAA Office of Coast Survey - http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/staff/news/headline-nrt.html