BY PAM ZARESK and STEVE KICKLIGHTER

There is currently a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives whose impact on South Carolina cannot be overstated. It’s known as WRDA (Water Resources Development Act), but we should all start referring to it as We Really Desire Authorization.

Why? Because WRDA is the authorization vehicle required to deepen our harbor and help ensure our state’s future prosperity. A federal authorization is mandatory before any monies can be appropriated or expended on the deepening. Its importance is no exaggeration.

Close to $60 billion in goods pass through Charleston’s harbor every year, with exports to 197 countries across the globe accounting for over $25 billion of that amount. These goods and associated activities have an annual $45 billion economic impact on our state and directly contribute to one in every 11 jobs throughout South Carolina.

This includes 112,000 jobs in the Upstate, 52,000 jobs in the Midlands, 30,000 jobs in the Pee Dee, 9,600 jobs along with Savannah River and over 31,000 jobs along the coast. But Charleston Harbor must get deeper to help ensure continued growth in all of these regions.

The Port of Charleston has been a key economic engine for over 300 years, but we must keep pace with the ever-evolving world of international trade — which demands 50-foot deep channels to accommodate massive new ships that carry 13,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs). To put that in perspective, when the Wando-Welch Terminal opened in the 1980s, the largest ships carried 3,500 TEUs and only needed a channel depth of 35-40 feet.

Thankfully, Charleston has naturally deep water — the trump card in international trade. But while the port of Charleston already boasts the deepest water in the region at 45 feet, a 50-foot channel is required to meet future shipping demands. As one of the few that could handle these post-Panamax ships, the port of Charleston would be the envy of ports in the Southeast — and vitally strategic for ocean carriers planning where to route their vessels, shippers establishing their supply chains and site selectors locating port-dependent projects. It will facilitate a huge increase in new cargo traversing our docks — resulting in waves of economic growth to every corner of our state.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing its part and completed the project’s reconnaissance study in the summer of 2010. It found a federal interest in further deepening Charleston Harbor. And it found that it is most likely the best value for scarce public dollars.

The project is now in the feasibility phase, which is the final step required before being officially authorized. As they say, though, timing is everything. In this high-stakes game South Carolina needs the House to pass a WRDA bill this year — with several vital provisions, including a contingency authorization.

This will allow deepening projects such as ours to move forward if the required Army Corps’ feasibility study is approved within five years of WRDA passage.

The concern is that while WRDA bills are supposed to be reauthorized every two years, there have been only two reauthorizations since 2000 — the most recent in 2007. With a number of post-Panamax ships already in service, South Carolina needs to move straight into deepening mode once our feasibility report is complete in the fall of 2015.

With our General Assembly having the foresight to set aside $300 million for the deepening (which includes both the state match and federal portion if needed), a contingency authorization in WRDA is the only way to achieve deepening in the requisite time frame.

A WRDA bill without this provision runs the very real risk of halting our deepening project and stifling the accompanying economic growth throughout our state.

Two other important provisions include language changing the controlling depth for 100 percent federal maintenance share in shipping channels from 45 feet to 50 feet; and language to help small ports like Georgetown’s better compete for critical maintenance funds from the federal government. These provisions go hand-in-hand with a modernized port infrastructure system, which WRDA seeks to achieve.

WRDA is an expansive, complicated bill that will always have detractors. But the fact remains that shipping channels are a federal responsibility — and have been since 1789 when the federal government began authorizing navigation channel improvement projects.

The General Survey Act of 1824 established the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ role as the agency responsible for our navigation system. As such, WRDA is the only currently available means through which our state’s ports can be authorized for deepening and modernization.

We cannot allow this vitally important bill to get mired in ideological debates that have become prevalent in Washington.

We applaud Sen. Lindsey Graham for his support and leadership in getting WRDA through the Senate. It’s now time for our House delegation to follow suit.

Anybody with an interest in the future prosperity of South Carolina should speak out in support of WRDA’s passage and let our congressional delegation know it actually stands for We Really Desire Authorization.

Pam Zaresk is president of the Maritime Association of S.C., a non-profit trade association whose mission is to advocate for South Carolina’s ports and its maritime transportation sector. Steve Kicklighter is vice president of McAllister Towing of Charleston and serves as chairman of the MASC board.