Ships cannot come and go fully loaded unless the channels are maintained at a certain depth. Deferred maintenance means the problems have gotten bigger and more expensive.
The money to do the work is in the Federal Harbor Maintenance trust fund, but the feds won't release the nearly $6 billion in that fund.
"Why they do it is the fuzzy math that drives everyone crazy in this state and across the nation," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. "They use it because it offsets some federal obligations. It makes the deficit look smaller."
There is now a bipartisan effort at the state level to get the money released. On Friday, representatives from ports all across the state joined Newsom at the Port of Oakland to make their case.
The money in the trust fund comes from shippers and carriers who pay a user fee at the nation's parts. California's ports contribute $400 million annually, or about 40 percent of the fund's annual revenues.
Getting that back into the state for port maintenance would keep the ports competitive and create jobs.
"Carriers don't mind paying, shippers don't mind paying if they get something in return on their dollar," said Leal Sundet with the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. "Putting all that money in the bank and sitting on it is not spending it."
The state says $200 million a year would get the channels where they need to be.
"We don't need all the money that's collected in California, but we could use 30 or 40 percent of it...and as we get the channels dredged and maintained, we probably don't need as much after that," said Jim Haussener with California Marine Affairs.
Newsom says the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 18th in port infrastructure. Newsom fears if we don't invest in being competitive now, it may be too late someday to catch up.