Some call the Sabine-Neches Waterway the lifeline of the Southeast Texas economy. It is the 4th largest waterway in the United States, seeing 71,000 vessel transits a year. About 100 million tons of cargo traverse the channel annually, mostly crude oil.
"We produce about 13% of the nation's gasoline daily," said Clayton Henderson, assistant general manager of the Sabine-Neches Navigation District (SNND).
According to the SNND, the waterway is responsible for almost 300,000 permanent jobs, both local and abroad, and $32 billion in gross annual product to the nation.
But a drastic makeover will soon be coming to the waterway that could change everything.
President Obama last month signed a bill that authorizes waterway improvement projects all over the country, but the biggest will be taking place right here in Southeast Texas.
The Sabine-Neches Waterway, from the Port of Beaumont to the Gulf of Mexico, 64 miles in total, will be dug 8 feet deeper. The channel improvement project also extends the waterway offshore by 13 miles, bringing the total to 77 miles.
Henderson says preliminary work on the roughly $1 billion federal project is set to get underway in 2016.
Dredgers will dig up mud, deepening the channel from 40 feet to 48 feet.
"It will cut that material and then vacuum it up. It'll be pumped out of the pipes into these large pieces of land (along the waterway)," said Henderson.
Making the channel 8 feet deeper will allow for much larger ships to come through, and will allow all ships to carry much more cargo.
"The ships are using the waterway so efficiently now that there's only about 2 feet distance under the bottom of the ship to the mud," said Henderson. "The current ships that come in are somewhere around 100,000 dead weight tons, maybe somewhere around 500 feet long... We should be able to see ships get up to 150,000-170,000 dead weight tons... in the 700 feet long range."
Henderson says the work could take as long as 12 years to complete, but says the impact will be enormous. Refineries will be able to produce more, meaning a lot more money will be flowing to the area. The project is expected to generate an estimated $23 billion in gross product in Jefferson County annually. Henderson also says the project will create 78,000 permanent, local jobs
"Jobs that are directly related to the refining process, the refineries are growing, they're going to be hiring more people. But then there's all the indirect jobs and induced jobs. All of the supply that goes along with that production, all of the support jobs, the construction jobs that build those new facilities," said Henderson. "All the way down to the convenience stores that are going to pop up on the new corners that are going to be made, so it precipitates down to the whole economy."
The Sabine-Neches has been dredged deeper 4 times before, the last time being in 1962. Henderson says the economy soared after that project as well.