Want to see a government program at work? Want some evidence you’re getting your money’s worth from your government? Does catastrophe avoidance count?
NOAA’s Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System–or PORTS–is one of the success stories that 99.9 percent of citizens don’t hear about. It’s a small piece of the National Ocean Service navigation services program (coastal surveying, charts, etc.). The 18 or so PORTS installations in place so far provide commercial and government mariners, in addition to state coastal agencies and academicians, real-time tide and current data. This is vital information, of course, but the shift from the traditional printed tide tables to accurate information from in-place sensors enables a great leap in navigation safety and resource knowledge. Where PORTS sensors are installed the mariner can have greater confidence in the channel ahead. PORTS also enables crews to make air draft calculations to determine if conditions are favorable to clear the underside of a bridge. Whether it’s the USS New York approaching Huey P. Long Bridge or a containership facing the Bayonne Bridge on its way to Port Elizabeth that’s a big dollar calculation.
NOS pulled together a successful pilot project in Tampa. Among other things the technology was a means to predict oil spill behavior–a big deal in deciding spill response action. But PORTS was getting scant or no attention in the President’s annual budget until a port/industry group knocked on the door of the Deputy Secretary of Commerce. They told him there was a gem buried deep in the department, starving for money and capable of saving hundreds of millions in marine accidents.
Subsequent budgets have included the bare $3mn needed to keep the system operating at HQ. With some effort and contributions by port stakeholders, new locations slowly were connected to the system. It wasn’t until Katrina and Rita had their way with the Gulf Coast that some Senators understood the predictive value of PORTS for a vulnerable coastline. First realization, then a burst of funding for 4 new Gulf installations.
PORTS is a national program that remains underfunded. Sure, there are a dozen or so port locations added since the early pilots. But sensor installations are not uniformly the responsibility of NOAA and annual O&M funding can resemble a game of chicken when there is no firm local arrangement for funds.
This is a proven technology and system. But without a clear Federal commitment to complete and maintain installations around the country it remains that gem lacking adequate support from the Commerce Department and Congress.