Germany's Federal Administrative Court (the country's last recourse in most administrative legal cases) on Tuesday dismissed three complaints against the deepening of the Elbe River to a depth of 15.6 meters (51 feet) as far inland as Hamburg.
Hamburg, with the support of German federal government, wants to deepen the Elbe between Hamburg and Cuxhaven, where the river flows into the North Sea. Hamburg argues that the project is necessary to open Germany's largest port to mega freighters and maintain international competitiveness.
In its ruling, the court in Leipzig said the coastal cities of Cuxhaven and Otterndorf would have to adapt to the situation, and accept any possible disadvantages. The two cities had complained that the dredging of the Elbe would have a negative impact on outdoor swimming facilities on the river.
Read more: Deepening divide over Elbe dredging
Fishermen, meanwhile, have complained that the operation could have a major impact on traditional fishing grounds, perhaps making them vanish altogether.
The court had already largely approved the deepening of the Elbe between the North Sea and Hamburg — Germany's second most populous city.
However, it had found deficiencies in the original request for permission, and asked for improvements to be made. Among them were measures to protect an endemic plant, the "Schierlingswasserfenchel" or water hemlock, which only grows at the mouth of the Elbe.
The court decided that the failings of the earlier application had been addressed. It also judged that the need for increased use of the waterway outranked the objections of the plaintiffs.
The decision was welcomed by German Food and Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, who is also acting transport minister.
"As a world leader in exports and logistics, Germany must also be able to serve the needs of container ships that operate globally," said Schmidt.
However, several environmental groups – including the World Wildlife Fund, NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) and BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) - are pushing for a review by the German Institute for Hydraulic Engineering (BAW). They claim that the engineering work could have a significant effect on water levels. They say the adverse effects of increased salinity on water hemlock might have been underestimated.
The river has already been deepened eight times since 1860, going from 4.5 meters then to 14.5 meters today, keeping pace with global commerce that has demanded ever larger ships. The newest project aims to accommodate the new generation of mega container ships.