Posted on August 17, 2022
The mighty Mississippi River was renamed the mightier Mississippi on Tuesday, by a gathering of federal, state and local officials heralding the deepening of the river’s navigation channel to 50 feet between its mouth and New Orleans.
Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, began lobbying in 2012 to deepen the channel of the country’s largest superhighway for import and export goods from 45 feet to 50 feet. He said it was as family effort, as his father, the late George Duffy Jr., a longtime shipping executive, had helped lead the push to deepen the channel from 40 feet to 45 feet in 1986.
Duffy shared the stage, at the Mardi Gras Museum overlooking the Mississippi River, by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose administration found ways for the state to guarantee its $80 million share of the $250 million project, and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, whose efforts on behalf of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law assured money was available for the federal share of dredging costs.
They were joined by U.S. Rep. Troy Carter of New Orleans, who also voted for the infrastructure bill, and Army Corps of Engineers Col. Stephen Murphy, who oversaw the dredging work as commander of the corps’ New Orleans District office.
Edwards said the deepening project is key to assuring the development of a new container terminal downriver of the Crescent City Connection. Murphy said the aftermath of Hurricane Ida last year and this year’s war between Russia and the Ukraine confirmed the importance of deepening the channel.
“Everything we’re seeing overseas, Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, makes that water channel more important,” Murphy said. “Everything we see with supply chain issues shows how much we need this waterway.”
Cassidy said the dredging project also will benefit thousands of farmers and businesses within the river’s basin, which stretches from Wyoming to the Gulf of Mexico, by reducing the cost of shipping because of the larger ships that will be able to access Louisiana ports.
When complete, the 50-foot-deep channel will include 253 miles of river passing through four of the country’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. Murphy said only about 75 miles of that path needed the extra dredging.
Those ports handle more than 500 million tons of cargo a year, including 60 percent of the country’s grain, and are connected to 14,500 miles of inland navigable waterways.
According to the Big River Coalition, an arm of the Louisiana Maritime Association, the pilots associations controlling shipping on the lower river have now cleared ships for maximum drafts of 50 feet from the river’s mouth to the Huey P. Long Bridge.
Draft limits lessen upriver of that bridge, to 49 feet between the Long Bridge and Donaldsonville, 47 feet for the next five miles and then back to 45 feet through the Baton Rouge area.
Six dredge ships, three owned by the Corps of Engineers and three by private contractors, were still deepening portions of the river channel this week.
Two corps dredges, the Hurley and the Jadwin, and the Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Co.’s Wallace McGeorge dredge, are deepening “crossings,” the bend areas along the river where the navigation channel tends to fill with sediment, to 50 feet. That will eventually let ships with that draft travel all the way to Baton Rouge.
Manson Construction’s Glenn Edwards hopper dredge was operating in the river along the Port of South Louisiana’s docks in St. Charles Parish. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock’s Terrapin Island hopper dredge was operating just below Head of Passes, while the corps’ Wheeler hopper dredge was continuing to deepen an area of Southwest Pass right at its mouth, about 20 miles below Head of Passes.
This Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Co. video describes the type of dredging that its Wallace McGeorge dustpan dredge is conducting. The dredge is now deepening the channel in Sardine Crossing, a U-shaped river bend about 219 miles above Head of Passes near the intersection of River Road and Ben Hur Road in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The corps is overdredging to 54 feet the southernmost segment of the river, between Venice and the river’s mouth, to increase the time before maintenance dredging is required.
In recommending the deepening project in a 2018 report, the corps estimated it would add as much as $127.5 million a year to the U.S. economy, compared to its estimated annual maintenance costs of $17.7 million.
But both the estimate of the project’s economic value, and its annual upkeep, came before inflation began rapidly rising the Russia-Ukraine war increased grain export costs.
The deepening project also will improve access to several proposed liquefied natural gas terminals on the lower river, as well as to more than 150 petrochemical plants between its mouth and Baton Rouge.
Louisiana’s share of the deepening project cost is more than $100 million, including $39 million of the dredging costs and $80 million to adjust pipelines and other utilities. But the state expected much of the utility costs to be borne by the owners, thanks to provisions included in permits that allowed them to use the riverbed.
Officials say the deeper channel eventually will allow modern New Panamax vessels, next-generation ships built to use the widened Panama Canal, and Post Panamax vessels, which might be too large for the Central America shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, to travel as far north as Baton Rouge – if their superstructure fits below the Crescent City Connection bridge in New Orleans.
Material dredged in the lower river is being used to build about 2¼ square miles of new wetlands in the federal Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the state Pass A Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Material dredged from the southernmost 2½ miles of Southwest Pass has been placed in an existing ocean dredge material disposal site.