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After the Flood, $60 Million in Dredge Funding Would Save a $100 Billion Waterway

Sean Duffy, Big River Coalition administrator and maritime advocate for the Mississippi River Maritime Association, issued a statement on May 6 describing the effects of the historic flooding on the river and tributaries this Spring.
He told IDR on May 10, “The only thing that has changed since this was drafted is that flooding is becoming more of a threat and people must come before the economy, but of course they are intimately related.”

Issued on behalf of 70 companies and organizations in the Big River Coalition, the paper requests emergency funding “to avoid running our economy aground, [and] securing the documented $60 million required to avoid further impediment to marine transportation on the Lower Mississippi River.”

“The maritime industry has expressed fears about the negative impact to the economy and international trade related to the lack of funding the dredge the Lower Mississippi River (LMR) since the Corps New Orleans District (NOD) announced that it would no longer re-program funds from other projects,” Duffy wrote. “The NOD and industry members knew when this policy change was announced in September 2010 that if there were a high river event, that the deep draft channel on the LMR could be forced to deviate from the Congressionally authorized dimensions.”
Duffy referred to the limits on dredging as a result of inadequate funding, and complications from the continuing resolutions and other “piecemeal temporary funding.”

He described how the hydrology of Southwest Pass forces sedimentation when the elevated water column meets the Gulf of Mexico, sedimentation that will “strangle the shipping channel.”

The Corps had predicted a loss of five feet of maintained depth if funding were not increased. In the past few months “some reaches of Southwest Pass have been reduced to about half of their authorized width. The Panamax vessels … carry cargoes that can represent a million dollars or more per foot of draft... The Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge has the number two capacity in the nation of about 500,000 barrels per day. Tankers calling on this refinery would have to transit the pass and crossings above New Orleans at reduced dimensions,” he said. “The crossings will shoal in as the stage subsides, the exact opposite of [how it happens] in Southwest Pass,” he said.

Duffy stated that the Lower Mississippi River, with an economic impact of about $100 billion, would need an additional $60 million to restore and maintain the authorized channel in the Lower Mississippi. This would fund six additional hopper dredges for Southwest Pass, an extra dredge for New Orleans Harbor and three dustpans for the crossings above New Orleans.

He recalled to mind the grounding of the M/V Marshal Konyev in 1989, which closed navigation on the Lower Mississippi for almost a month – a prediction of what could happen if the channel is not dredged.

“Transit restrictions on a shipping channel that connects over 30 states and two Canadian provinces via 12,000-plus miles of waterways is an economic disaster that can be … avoided,” he said. Shippers pay a tax based on the amount of imported cargo value – the Harbor Maintenance Tax – that is supposed to be used to pay for maintenance dredging on federally authorized deep draft channels.

“The negative impact and devastating blow to the economy could be avoided if the required funds were appropriated promptly,” Duffy writes. About $6 billion collected by the HMT has been diverted from the maritime infrastructure, and this can be directly linked to the underfunding that plagues the nation’s harbors, ports and terminals.

Appropriators have few resources for funding projects outside the normal budget because of an untested decision to disallow earmarks, Duffy asserted.

“If the NOD does not receive funds to dredge the Lower Mississippi River channel soon, domestic transportation costs will … increase while … placing American importers/exporters under a competitive disadvantage against foreign companies,” said Duffy. The Lower Mississippi is the channel on which the cargoes and goods needed to rebuild the country’s interior will depend, he said.

The Big River Coalition is dedicated to its sole mission of securing the $60 million needed to maintain the fully-authorized dimensions of the Lower Mississippi River. The coalition is focused on this priority while all companies and operators on the channel are making emergency preparations to minimize threats to navigation safety caused by the predicted record water levels, Duffy concluded in his May 10 statement.

There are more than 70 members of the coalition, and this statement was signed by 54 – as many as could be gathered in the emergency.

Note on May 11: The high water will move toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast over the next three weeks. The river crested at Memphis at 48 feet on the evening of May 10. On Wednesday morning, May 11, the river was at 56 feet in Helena, Arkansas, about 12 feet above flood stage. At press time, forecasters predicted that it would crest at 57.1 feet in Vicksburg on May 19, 1.5 feet above the record crest of 1927, and at 62.5 feet in Natchez on May 21.

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