Since the middle 1960's much of our maritime infrastructure in the United States has been untouched. It was built well with the intention of careful maintenance for generations.
During the global economic troubles of the 1970's there was little money to direct to a deeply slumping industry and it's expensive port and harbor projects.
In the 1980's some ports came back to life with increased consumer spending but a growing environmental movement kept many projects at a standstill.
By the 1990's the issue of failing infrastructure was in the news with dilapidated bridges and tunnels. Almost none of the allocated funds went to shipping infrastructure including critical operations like dredging.
The new millennium brought more funding to ports but mostly for security.
It was during underwater security checks that many cases of severe undermining have been reported.
Our ports and harbors have many issues due to poor maintenance, but undermining poses larger issues for managers of these facilities.
Undermining occurs most quickly in dynamic environments. The scour of rainwater spilling from a walkway drain induces little current but underwater sediments are very mobile and slump quickly when unrestrained.
Areas adjacent to former industrial operations like ports often use the waterfront as a point of interest. Many cities now have pleasant walkways in place of historic working waterfronts. Diners eat alfresco on sidewalks suspended by only a handful of partly rotted pilings.
The point is these shore areas need attention as much as active ports. The construction is similar and they were never meant to be maintenance free installations.
Why Doesn't this Get More Attention?
Nobody is sure why this has been ignored for so long? These issues are literally at the center of many of our cities since they were built alongside rivers before industrialized land transportation. Expensive luxury condominiums now fill old riverside warehouses and terminals so you would think the decision makers might say "that's dangerous, let's fix it".
The real problem is lack of visibility and interest. It will take some sort of tragedy to get the public attention on this issue, unfortunately this has happened in the past when bridges have collapsed.
There is also the problem of literal visibility of these locations. If the public could see 50 feet of riverbank scoured out to the high watermark with only the hundred year old piles for support they would abandon the downtown and riverfront areas.
Is this only a problem in the U.S.?
Unfortunately, no it is a global problem and only rapidly developing countries seem to have the issue under control. For example, many ports and other infrastructure in China is new or at least less than twenty years old. Historic ports in these environments are long gone.
The United Kingdom is in a similar situation as the U.S. but some infrastructure was damaged in the second world war and replaced a decade later. The scale of the U.K. is also much smaller than the U.S. but with an intense shipping economy it will be interesting to see how thing are done abroad.
In 2012 the BBC ran a series of popular documentaries focusing on the infrastructure issues in the U.K. The show reported an estimated repair bill with many zeros. The U.S. maritime infrastructure is in worse shape and is several times larger.
Getting funding for main port projects is difficult enough, getting funding for the numerous river fronts and seawalls where professional and recreational mariners spend their time seems close to impossible. Please help spread the word about this issue.