Floods, budget woes cloud outlook for Mississippi River channel depth

Record flooding of the Mississippi River created a problem with shoaling as millions of tons of silt and debris were carried down to the mouth of the river. The shoaling threatens to severely impact the ability of deep-draft vessels to transit the 290 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, La., to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps of Engineers deepened this ship channel from 40 to 45 feet in two projects between 1987 and 1994. Since then, the Army Corps has worked to maintain a 45-foot deep channel for the entire length and a 750-foot wide channel for almost the entire section from New Orleans to the Gulf. These specifications allow two 106-foot wide Panamax vessels to pass each other on the river.

But the Army Corps will not be able to keep the channel at assigned depths for the foreseeable future.

The Mississippi River, at high flood level, overflows its banks near New Orleans in May. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"The full width and depth is probably a thing of the past," said Michael G. Ensch, the Army Corps' chief of operations and regulation. "Because, what we see budgetarily moving forward, those years of 105 and 120 (million) amounts being expended on the project just simply are not going to be made available."

Mariners and shippers may have no choice but to adjust their loads.

"In times past, this project was kept to the full width and depth to the maximum extent practicable," Ensch said. "That is why we put more and more money into it. That is simply not able to be done."

The Missouri River has also experienced severe flooding. As a result, the U.S. Coast Guard closed the river to all vessel traffic between mile marker 550 and mile marker 811 on June 7. That closure steadily expanded and by June 27 the river was closed from mile marker 386, downstream of Leavenworth, Kan., to mile marker 811, near Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D.

According to Ensch, further depth restrictions were possible in the Mississippi River after the Missouri River subsided and that flooding reached the Lower Mississippi.

Loss of depth had already taken place on the Lower Mississippi River. The Associated Branch Pilots, based in Metairie, La., put in place a draft restriction of 43 feet for the entire channel on June 9.

"We are actually 4 feet under draft from where we were last year," Michael R. Lorino, president of the branch pilots, said in June. The channel was at 47 feet last year, but that is not project depth.

"And unfortunately, I believe it will only get worse," Lorino said. "Unless the federal government puts in a supplemental emergency bill, we could lose even more draft on the Mississippi River system."

His apprehensions are not about the work the corps does. Given adequate funds and equipment, "the Army Corps does a fantastic job dredging the channel," he said.

Some sections are also losing width. "You have ships passing literally within feet of working dredges right now," said Gary LaGrange, president of the Port of New Orleans. "That is an accident waiting to happen."

Loss of depth has a big impact. At 43 feet, about 20 to 30 percent of river traffic is impacted, according to LaGrange. This mainly affects vessels carrying grain for export and petrochemical tankers carrying oil products to refineries. If the channel drops below 43 feet, about 50 to 60 percent of traffic is affected.

"They may not stop running, but they have to come in light," said LaGrange. "And if you come in light, you're losing money." For every foot that is lost in the channel, about $1 million is lost per vessel, he said. About 6,000 ships move 500,000 tons of cargo annually between the Gulf and Baton Rouge.

Of particular concern is Southwest Pass, a 22-mile section at the mouth of the river. On average, 60 percent of dredging funds are used in the Southwest Pass, said Michelle Spraul, operations manager with the Army Corps' Mississippi River New Orleans District. Regular dredging also takes places at the crossings between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, she said.

Pilots are worried that the lack of funds for dredging is creating a safety hazard. In June, the Crescent River Port Pilots issued a statement citing concerns about channel conditions in the vicinity of Pilottown, La.

"The channel is not being maintained at project depth and thereby is causing an irregular width and depth, causing extreme conditions and additional navigational challenges," the statement said.

The section of the channel from Pilottown to the Gulf is extremely volatile. "It can change in its depth and in its width overnight," said Lorino. "It doesn't take a long time for the mud to build up. That is the scary part right now. We know we have 43 feet of water, but that could change and that wouldn't be good."

Spraul said the corps has to stay within its budget this year and "that is the reason there are some draft restrictions and we are not able to be dredging as much … to maintain full project depth."

Funding for dredging for the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is $84 million, according to Spraul.

"We are trying to provide the best channel we can within the funding amount," said Spraul.

She said the dredging budget has been about $52 million a year for the past five years. However, in some of those years, additional money was transferred from other projects across the country to the Mississippi River budget. The total spent on dredging was $127 million in fiscal 2010, $179 million in 2009, $116 million in 2008 and $52 million in 2006.

For this fiscal year, the corps announced that it will no longer transfer funds from other projects to supplement the Lower Mississippi River dredging budget.

"These sources of funds in times past are simply not available to us now," said Ensch. Plus, the Army Corps is spending a tremendous amount of money on the emergency response to flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, he said.

Last year, industry officials were already disturbed about a cut in the amount of money that could be spent on dredging, months before the record-breaking flood. Louisiana's two U.S. senators, Mary L. Landrieu and David Vitter, wrote to the heads of the Senate Appropriations Committee expressing these concerns in a letter in December 2010.

Cuts in the amount of money spent on dredging this section of the river have industry representatives and area politicians lobbying Washington to pass an emergency appropriations bill to provide an additional $95 million for adequate dredging.

"We've been telling people this since September (2010)," LaGrange said, regarding the problem of inadequate funds for dredging.

However, additional funding may be on the way. On June 15, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved the fiscal 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill that includes over $1 billion in emergency funding for the Army Corps to address flood-fighting and restoration of flood-prevention systems.

If emergency funding were to add money to the dredging budget, Ensch said there is the capability in the dredging industry to bring equipment to the Lower Mississippi. He could not give a time frame, but said, "I don't think we are looking at an extraordinarily long response time."

By Professional Mariner Staff