Despite the challenges, U.S. inland waterways continue to bustle

Grain is one of the major commodities that are barged southbound for export through the Port of South Louisiana.

America’s inland waterways continue to wrestle with challenges, but the long-term future looks bright as a chorus of business, environmental, and government voices increasingly sing the praises of those who confront the hazards of inland navigation.  

Most notably, of course, frustratingly chronic drought conditions that showcase the limits of human systems designed to sustain navigation – particularly navigation on America’s 25,000-mile inland waterway network that moves 665 million tons of cargo annually and contributes more than $30 billion to the national economy every year.

Bullish on the future of the inland waterways industry, despite the challenges, is Jennifer Carpenter, president and CEO of The American Waterways Operators. 

“We have never been more relevant and we are the safest and most fuel efficient and environmentally sustainable mode of transport,” she said, stressing the support from Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers that she describes as both “broad and deep.”

There is, added Carpenter, “bipartisan agreement about the importance of moving freight by water. We have 350 million people that need the lights on and need goods; we are safe, sustainable, and robust and I think those who want to breach dams and eliminate locks represent a minority viewpoint since there is so much positive evidence about the advantages of water transport.”

That being said, Carpenter cautioned that continued success depends on preparing and modernizing dams and infrastructure. 

Making sure they “are well maintained and can handle tows of the size we need “will help reduce the time needed to assemble and break up tows and have emergency workarounds for when there are  maintenance issues so customers don’t need to revert to less environmentally efficient modes,” she added.

Planning is critical “as infrastructure improvements can often take 20 years or longer to complete and Congress needs to allocate the funds for Army Corps of Engineers activities and also to some extent for the Tennessee Valley Authority.” 

One resource that also plays a critical role is the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, a fund in the U.S. Treasury that receives revenues from a tax – also known as the inland waterway user fee – on commercial barge fuel on federally designated waterways.

“The industry pays a 20-cent per-gallon fee on diesel fuel that goes into that fund,” Carpenter explained, and, most importantly, it can be tapped for infrastructure projects.

Not only is the industry “inherently efficient,” but Carpenter also states that the industry has managed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by about 15 percent over the last 15 years as more efficient propulsion systems are coming on line and cleaner burning fuels such as hydrogen and methanol are garnering increased interest.

The nation’s 25,000-mile inland waterway network that moves 665 million tons of cargo annually.

“We think it is important to note that we don’t want to dictate the fuel of the future because we don’t think there is only one as a lot of it depends on where vessels are operating. Harbor tugs that always return to their dock are candidates for electrification, but few other vessels have such a clear pattern of use that works with charge-discharge cycles of batteries. 

There are, she concluded, “many options, but we want to make sure regulations don’t stymie first movers.” 

Executive Director of  Inland Rivers Ports & Terminals, Aimee Andres also counts herself as an optimist, noting that the inland navigation system “has worked reliably for many years.” 

Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., the organization has 300 corporate members including port professionals, terminal operators, shippers, carriers, firms, suppliers, state agencies, and other associations actively involved in activities along the inland waterways network. 

“I see that the 118th Congress and the federal agencies are giving a lot of attention to healthy growth and Army Corps is even giving its full attention to low water issues and salt intrusion in some areas.”

“There is really a strong cooperation between the political delegations and the agencies,” she added, though raising concerns about the Institute of Water Resources (IWR), which operates within the Army Corps of Engineers, as being “drastically underfunded.” 

According to the Corps, the Institute was established “to provide forward-looking analysis, cutting-edge methodologies, and innovative tools to aid USACE’s Civil Works program.”

Wind turbine blades being barged northward on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota.

The IWR “strives to improve the performance of the USACE water resources programs and does so through creating, managing, and sharing data and research,” said Andres. “We need them adequately funded and we need more overall transparency.” 

For instance, said Andres, phrases like “aging infrastructure and end of lifespan are used without clarity or a sense of how fixes will be prioritized. “The backlog keeps growing even though Congress just passed a historic trillion-dollar spending package.”

According to Andres, there is no single database of projects and “no clear sense” of the priorities that weigh on towboat and terminal operators and other businesses that rely on the waterways. 

“Prior spending packages had required the Corps to create a searchable and downloadable database by 2020, but to date nothing has been done,” she said.

However, Andres is quick to point out that navigable waterways “aren’t worth much unless they have terminals and ports that can handle vessels and volumes.”

Typically, she noted, it is the private terminals that actually move the cargo on to markets. “They are the ones putting capital investments into equipment and going out and finding new business and trying to market the inland waterways,” she explained. “And we cannot underestimate their value.”  

Inland Rivers Ports & Terminals works for the public and private ports, Andres noted. “If I had my way, I would love to see more shipper engagement and awareness because so many shippers just don’t know all of this. We need to educate shippers that we aren’t just throwing things in a barge. There are containers and partial loads so you don’t have to fill a whole barge. Ultimately, the message to companies is that they can save money and improve the environment by utilizing inland water transportation.”

Lou Dell’Orco, chief for operations, regulatory and readiness for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s St. Louis District, sees many of the same issues identified by others, including persistent low water for more than a year. 

As a result, “It has been challenging to maintain a Congressionally authorized 9-foot channel depth.” The Corps’ purview, he said, “includes many long-stretches of open river with no locks that we maintain in support of the nation’s economy and its ability to export.”

According to Dell’Orco, the dredging season usually runs from July 4 to Christmas, “but last year it ran into February and this year there is no end in sight. Put in material terms, in the past, “active dredging years have resulted in the movement of 2-4 million cubic yards of material, but this season will probably reach 10 million cubic yards.” 

In contrast, in 2022, the St. Louis District employed five dredgers, but, in 2023, it could muster only three. There are challenges there, too, he added, as two of the dredgers are 92 years old. “They operate nearly 100 percent of the time; it is a tribute to their crews.”

After serious drought in 2012 – the first in many years at the time – the Corps worked to remove rocks that were limiting the navigable depth in certain areas. But low water is still a real problem, narrowing channels, reducing the size of barge tows and slowing operations – creating, Dell’Orco, said, “a situation only nature can fully cure.”