Mississippi River 50-foot deepening gets $85M this year, promised another $45.7M by Trump

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Posted February 12, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers will spend $85.35 million this year to begin deepening parts of the Mississippi River navigation channel between Baton Rouge and the river's mouth to 50 feet, 5 feet deeper than at present, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, announced Monday.

And President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, also released Monday, includes another $45.7 million for the dredging project, but no money for the long-discussed new lock on the Industrial Canal or the "Morganza to the Gulf" levee project.

"The Mississippi River Basin has an unprecedented impact on our national economy, global competitiveness and American job creation. Modernizing our infrastructure and deepening the river to 50 feet will help strengthen Louisiana’s dominance in domestic and international commerce," Scalise said in a news release.

“This is fantastic news for the Port of New Orleans and the entire Lower Mississippi River,”said Brandy Christian, the port's president and chief executive officer.

The deepening project will allow modern "New Panamax" vessels, built larger than past ships to use the widened Panama Canal, and "Post Panamax" vessels that may be too large even for the canal, to travel as far north as Baton Rouge, as long as their superstructure fits below the Crescent City Connection bridge in New Orleans.

In its 2018 report recommending congressional approval, the Corps concluded that the deepening project would result in benefits averaging $127.5 million a year to the nation's economy, compared to the average annual cost of $17.7 million for maintaining the deeper channel.

In all, 256 miles of the river will be deepened where it passes through four of the nation's top 15 ports: the Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District; the Port of New Orleans; the Port of South Louisiana; and the Port of Baton Rouge.

The state will have to shoulder more than $100 million of the estimated $237.7 million project cost, including $39.4 million of the dredging costs, and $80.2 million for pipeline and utility adjustments. At least half of the utility relocation cost would be picked up by the owners, rather than the state, because of provisions included in permits allowing them to use the river bed.

The southernmost part of the river, between Venice and the river's mouth, will be overdredged to 54 feet, aimed at increasing the time before maintenance dredging will be required.

Sediment dredged from the lower river will be used to build about 2.2 square miles of new wetlands in the federal Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the state's Pass A Loutre Wildlife Management Area.

In upriver locations, where a dozen "river crossings" — straight reaches between river bends — will be dredged, the sediment will be deposited in deeper water just downstream and allowed to flow downriver.

The $951.3 million unfunded Industrial Canal project calls for a 22-foot-deep by 110-foot-wide lock between the Holy Cross and St. Claude neighborhoods. The project has long been opposed by local residents concerned about its plan to replace bridges and to dredge contaminated sediment from the canal.

The 92-mile-long Morganza levee system, first approved by Congress in 1993, has yet to receive any federal funds. The state and local parishes have already funneled nearly $500 million into a first lift of earthen levees averaging 12 feet above sea level, enough to provide protection from surges caused by a storm with a 2 percent chance of occurring any year, a so-called 50-year storm.

Local and state officials, joined by Scalise and other members of the state's congressional delegation, have unsuccessfully urged Congress to appropriate the 65 percent federal share of the project's cost, about $2.1 billion.

The state and local governments will put up $1.1 billion of the project's cost — including money already spent — to raise the system to between 18 and 20 feet above sea level, to block surges caused by a 100-year storm.

The Corps' 2020 funding also includes $25 million for Algiers drainage improvements that are part of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Program, known as SELA.

The budget also includes $18 million for containment dikes along the Calcasieu River and Pass system in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, $500,000 for Iberia Parish wastewater improvements, $2 million for Livingston Parish environmental infrastructure projects, and $40.6 million for improvements to the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway in northwestern Louisiana.

Mark Schleifstein covers the environment and is a leader of the Louisiana Coastal Reporting Team for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Email: mschleifstein@theadvocate.com. Facebook: Mark Schleifstein and Louisiana Coastal Watch. Twitter: MSchleifstein.

Source: nola.com