Posted on November 17, 2021
Many people welcomed the news on November 5 when the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $2.5 billion in waterways infrastructure funding. Edward Belk Jr., P.E. has special reasons for welcoming it. Belk is director of programs for the Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division, and he oversees a lot of dredging.
At the recently concluded Waterways Symposium held in St. Louis, Mo., Belk explained that his division dredges about 265 million cubic yards of material a year, of which about 40 percent is from the Lower Mississippi River. About 15 percent of his dredging budget goes to that task, with the lion’s share being spent in the New Orleans Engineer District, focused on Southwest Pass. “It’s a fixed amount of dredging each year, but the costs are always going up,” he said. Both the costs of moving the material and the costs of finding disposal sites are increasing.
Belk said there was a time when most of the dredging was carried out by the Corps with its own dredges, but most dredging is private now. Besides Southwest Pass, hot spots below Cairo, Ill., along the Mississippi River include Victoria Bend, Winchester, Redman Bank and Stack Island.
Farther north, one priority of his division is the Alton Pool Project in the Illinois River, which seeks to restore several “degraded” islands in the pool.Belk gave an update on the Gulf Regional Dredge Demonstration Project, introduced by the Corps in 2019 as a demonstration of a new, more innovative way of handling dredging projects.
Belk noted the “devastating” impacts of Hurricane Ida along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Lower Mississippi River, which was closed to traffic for six days and had restrictions for 12 days. The GIWW only reopened November 7.
Belk said the congressional removal of the ban on earmarks should prove helpful to many projects in his district. Congress imposed the ban on itself in 2011, but earmarks were brought back this year, with certain restrictions and limitations. This reduced the amount of influence that the congressional Office of Management and Budget had on the Corps spending process.
Belk showed a chart illustrating how unscheduled lock outages have steadily declined over the past 11 years, and he said it was a direct reflection of increased levels of investment by Congress.
Regarding the infrastructure bill, which passed two days after his presentation, Belk said the Corps has been working on a priority list. He said the Corps will “push hard” for the Navigation Ecosystem and Sustainability Program (NESP) and ensure there is a “strong demand signal” for it. He said the advocacy of Waterways Council Inc. has been “key” for funding and repeated, “Congress has been good to us” in recent years.
In the question and answer period, Belk said labor shortages among private contractors is an ongoing concern.