Concerns about adequate federal government funding again were the focus of speakers at the WEDA Gulf Coast Regional Workshop held November 8 and 9 at the Westin Hotel in New Orleans. Beneficial use of dredged material was a repeated topic because it raises the cost of dredging. Not as much dredged material is being used as is available several speakers noted.
In his keynote presentation Jerome Zeringue said that Louisiana recently updated its 50-year master plan which includes much beneficial use. Zeringue is executive director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.
Louisiana’s coastal restoration plan is the “canary in the coal mine” Zeringue said because it is leading the nation in what other coastal communities will have to address at some point. A study by Duke University said Louisiana is the nation’s coastal restoration laboratory while yet another study said technology and science developed in Louisiana is transportable to other coastal states.
“Failure is not an option” Zeringue emphasized. The Louisiana plan envisions spending $50 billion over the next 50 years with much of the initial funding coming from potential BP fines related to the Deepwater Horizon accident and massive oil spill.
But in later panel discussions P.J. Hahn director of the Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management Department said BP has final approval over the $1 billion it pledged with much media fanfare to coastal states as part of its restoration from the oil spill. So far BP has approved only $47 million in projects in Louisiana Hahn said.
Hahn said a second source of income to fund coastal restoration is from royalties from the offshore oil and gas exploration and production.
“In its advertising BP said it is making things right” Hahn said in response to a question from the audience. “But BP is not making things right” and implied that BP having the final say in funding projects is slowing the healing process.
Not wanting to wait on the state or federal restoration programs the parish recently approved issuing $65 million in bonds to begin its own coastal restoration program Hahn said. There are three keys to the parish program he added “Dredge dredge and dredge.”
Super Storm Sandy caused a lot of coastal damage in New Jersey and New York and could siphon off a lot of federal dollars that otherwise could have been used by Louisiana to combat sinking marshes and rising sea water said Hahn asking workshop attendees to keep the Northeast victims in their prayers.
Zeringue said the Corps of Engineers and navigation interests dredge an estimated 60 to 75 million cubic yards of material from the entire New Orleans District and using only half of that could rebuild as much as 16 square miles of marshland each year. About 30 million cubic yards are dredged from the Mississippi River alone from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico.
Restoring barrier islands as the first line of defense and marshlands which knock down storm surge are a priority. The idea is to strategically locate the beneficial use features so they will be sustainable and even continue to re-build themselves.
Coastal restoration created 8900 jobs in 2010 with $619 million spent an LSU study found. With a steady income stream of $400 to $750 million it could create up to 10300 jobs.
Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund
Both Zeringue and Hahn pitched for passage of a Congressional act to have all of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money spent for its intended purpose of maintaining deepwater channel dimensions.
Created by the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986 the Harbor Maintenance Tax on imported goods generates as much as $1.6 billion annually. However almost half of that is re-appropriated for other projects while the Corps struggles to find funds to pay for dredging to maintain navigation channels.
Directing all of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to channel maintenance could provide all the funding the Corps needs industry experts said.
Early in the workshop Corps officials outlined the proposed dredging projects in presentations by Chris Fabrotta from the Galveston District Kelly McElhenney from the Mobile District and Donald Schneider from the New Orleans District.
In addition Col. Ed Fleming commander of the New Orleans District gave an in-depth review of how the $14 billion committed to improvements to the hurricane risk reduction system fared during slow-moving Hurricane Isaac.
Had those improvements not been made New Orleans would have again suffered levee over-topping and serious flooding he said adding that prior to storm surge waters arriving 504 openings in the levees had to be closed. Fleming said he remembered the 504 number—it’s the area code for New Orleans.
Fleming said while most residents of New Orleans traditionally look only at the category rating of hurricanes—Isaac was rated Category 1—he said it is also important to look at the storm track speed and rainfall amounts in anticipating the storm surge. The category rating only looks at wind speed.
Hurricane Isaac made landfall south of New Orleans and tracked to the northwest putting the Crescent City in the “dangerous northeast quadrant” and its movement was many times slower than Katrina’s 17 mph speed. Isaac’s movement stalled at times and it moved at six mph or less during most of its track in southern Louisiana.
With hurricane and tropical force winds buffeting the city for 45 hours it relentlessly piled up water along the eastern side of the city and through Lake Borgne. But the $1 billion Lake Borgne Surge Barrier in Eastern New Orleans blocked the surge which was measured at 13.5 feet compared to Katrina’s 15 feet. Some levees in the area behind the surge barrier are only 11 feet above sea level and would have been over-topped.
Improvements to the southern entrance to the 24-mile Causeway Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain were not completed and sheet pile had to be driven to close off low spots as Isaac approached he added.
The Flood That Never Was
“Had the Surge Barrier not been completed New Orleans would have suffered flooding” Col. Fleming said adding that both the Surge Barrier and the Western Closure Complex on the West Bank of New Orleans worked flawlessly during the storm. Frequent conference calls included navigation interests NOAA the Corps and Coast Guard.
In his presentation Fleming called Isaac “the flood that never was.” He also praised the lockmasters who kept navigation moving as long as possible because of the waterways’ importance to the nation’s economy particularly the energy sector.
“You can’t go to LSU to learn what you need to be a lockmaster” Fleming said pointing in particular to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal lock that was built with a 50-year lifespan and is now approaching 90 years of age. “If that lock fails there is a 17 day run around through the Tenn-Tom Waterway.”
“A lockmaster is half electrician half engineer and half mechanic” Fleming said mindful of the math. “Next time you go past a lock give the lockmaster a big thank you.”
Emphasizing the importance of navigation and the required dredging on the Lower Mississippi River Fleming said the five ports between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico make up the largest port complex in the world. His New Orleans District also includes Morgan City and Lake Charles.
He said one presenter he heard at another conference was trying to explain the importance of the Lower Mississippi River to someone from outside Louisiana.
“Do you turn on your lights or drive to work?” the presenter said implying the power could have come through the Mississippi River or Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. In addition he said coastal Louisiana loses one football field of land per hour “so it’s not just a tree-hugger granola-eating issue.”
While the Mississippi River drains 41 percent of the U.S. this year’s drought has created a flow so slow that saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico has moved almost 90 miles upriver. Fleming explained the toe of the saltwater wedge is 15 to 25 miles above the surface impact. Intakes for municipal drinking water and industrial plant uses are affected as the wedge rises in the water column.
Fleming with next-day presentations by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co.’s Bill Hanson and Steve Auernhamer and the Corps’ Jeff Corbino explained that an underwater dike was constructed to block the wedge’s upstream movement. Much of the river depth was 50 feet where the dike was built but along the left descending bank the channel was 90 feet deep allowing the heavier saltwater to pass.
Great Lakes used the dredges Texas and California to move silt from a nearby anchorage to create the saltwater barrier. Navigation had to be stopped at times while the pipeline carrying the dredge material was put in place.
Communications with the Crescent and federal pilots aboard deep draft vessels were well coordinated. The dike underwater elevation was 50 feet below the surface allowing deep draft vessels to continue navigation once it was completed just before Hurricane Isaac approached.
“Hurricane Isaac didn’t do a damn thing to the dike” Fleming said.
Representatives from Bean Weeks and Great Lakes said none of their equipment was damaged in Hurricane Isaac or by Super Storm Sandy in the Northeast. All of the companies secured their equipment to withstand the surge and waves said to be six to eight feet in the Mississippi River.
Bean Dredging’s Trey Taylor and Ancil Taylor also gave a presentation on the expansion of the Port of Gulfport which required dredged material to be barged 25 miles to rebuild portions of Deer Island a barrier island. The Gulfport dredged material was embedded with lots of debris which had to be removed so it did not damage equipment.
Bob Wetta of Dredging Supply Company chaired a panel discussing emergency dredging and new dredging technology with Bill Hanson of Great Lakes Henry Schorr of Manson and Chuck Broussard of Weeks Marine who all agreed that the industry has the technology to move dredged material even from deep borrow areas. But the industry is reluctant to commit extensive funds to build equipment without a federal commitment for continued funding.
All three said the dredging industry is able to attract young engineers to dredging projects and living conditions aboard dredges have improved with Internet access and cell phones. It is important however that new-hires are told that some projects can be located “at the end of the world in Cameron Parish” in coastal southwest Louisiana.
Workshop attendees gave Wetta the WEDA national president high grades for the content and format of this year’s presentations.