The Mississippi River’s high water conditions will drastically increase the siltation problems at Louisiana’s Southwest Pass and Congress is being urged to find funding to keep the river clear.
“There is a strong probability that river traffic will be restricted at Southwest Pass in the next several weeks,” said Mike Strain, Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done an excellent job of keeping the river ports open, but shippers who depend on the Mississippi River to move their cargo are worried that the corps does not have the resources to control the enormous amount of silt that is coming down the river in this high water event.”
Strain said the Corps needs $95 million in emergency funding to dredge the shipping lane.
Strain, who spoke at a June 7 press conference at the Port of New Orleans, was most alarmed that the Associated Branch Pilots, a group of pilots who guide ships on the lower portion of the river, will lower vessel draft levels at Southwest Pass from 45 feet to 43 feet on June 9.
A reduction of a foot of cargo draft can cost a shipper between $500,000 to $1.5 million in revenue.
Captain Mike Lorino of the Associated Branch Pilots said the draft requirement for ships has not been that low for more than 13 years. “It’s a sad day for the Mississippi River. This is not a Louisiana issue. It’s a national issue.”
Lorino said all river shipping could be halted if a ship runs aground and blocks the channel.
“The Mississippi River is America’s commercial superhighway,” Strain said. “Sixty percent of agricultural production in America goes down the Mississippi River. If the river is not dredged now, the draft level could be reduced to 39 feet by the fall.”
Strain supports the passage of the Realize America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP) bill, sponsored by Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette.
The bill requires all taxes paid on imported cargo that go into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund be used specifically to maintain America’s harbors and waterways, including the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“This issue affects the entire United States economy,” Boustany said at the conference. “The Mississippi River is key to Louisiana’s economy and the country’s economy.
“The chronic problem is that the harbor maintenance tax has been locked up in budgetary games. Less than 35 percent of our top 59 harbors and waterways are maintained to their depth and width specifications.”
Currently, the tax generates $1.5 billion annually.
Boustany said passage of the RAMP Act will give the corps complete access to the harbor tax funds and allow full maintenance of the nation’s harbor resources.
“It is inconceivable that we don’t spend the dollars generated by our shipping industry to keep the channel open to ships,” Strain said.
Captain A.J. Gibbs of the Crescent River Port Pilots Association said it will cost twice as much to regain the channel at a future date if the emergency funding is not given to the corps now. “The pilots deal with the dynamics of the river on a day to day basis. It’s not new. We know that siltation is going to happen and the corps has the expertise to deal with it, but we have a dysfunctional monetary policy in Washington right now.”
Some 5,000 ocean-going vessels enter and exit the Mississippi River annually but there are more than 400,000 vessel movements per year between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico. That number includes ships, barges, tugboats and small vessels.
“It’s a tremendous dynamic that most people are not aware of or see on a day to day basis, but the siltation is a critical issue that must be addressed now,” said Gibbs. “Otherwise, the impact will be long lasting and significant. The costs will be exponentially higher unless the issue is addressed immediately.”
Strain said silt accumulation could halt the flow of thousands of tons of international cargo through the river port system. “There will be a ripple effect on our national economy and supply chain if ships can’t negotiate the channel.”
Strain added, in a typical dredging year, the corps would clear more than 36 million cubic yards of silt from the river. This year, because of the historic flooding levels, more than 60 million cubic yards of sedimentation will need to be dredged from the river to maintain navigation at its optimal level. To illustrate the number: 60 million cubic yards of silt could fill the Superdome more than 12 times.
Strain said it is critical to the nation’s economy to find the necessary funding to maintain the Mississippi River and called on his fellow agriculture commissioners and secretaries in other states to work with their congressional delegations to secure the necessary funding for Mississippi River dredging and passage of the RAMP Act.
“President Obama has set a goal of doubling our exports within five years,” Strain said. “But unless we keep the Mississippi River clear, that can’t happen because our ships will have to be loaded at less than capacity to get those vessels in and out of the river.”
Strain will be meeting with his counterparts in mid-June at the Southern State Departments of Agriculture (SASDA) conference in North Carolina and will work closely with the southern agriculture commissioners to develop strategies to secure funds for immediate river maintenance.
Debate on the RAMP Act will most likely be heard in August.