The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District has released a request for proposals for the maintenance of Atchafalaya River Bar Channel leading from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Morgan City.
With an authorized 20 by 400 foot navigation channel that connects to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Mississippi River by way of the Atchafalaya River the Port of Morgan City markets itself as an alternative to nearby coastal deep draft ports for shallow to medium draft vessels.
Unfortunately import-export shipments at the Port of Morgan City have come to a halt due to rapid silting along an 8-mile offshore stretch of the port’s navigation channel. In addition to its inshore channel along the Atchafalaya River the port maintains a channel extending 20 miles offshore. The 8-mile section in question called the “bar channel” is plagued by “fluff” a soupy rapidly-accumulating silt that stifles navigation.
“Our last ship came in last September ” Raymond “Mac” Wade executive director of the Port of Morgan City said. “We had to split the load because we didn’t have the water depth.”
The bar channel was last dredged to 20 feet in January 2015. The port spent $13.6 million last fiscal year dredging the entire length of its navigation channel both inshore and offshore.
“We dredged last year but within 60 or 75 days we’d lost our draft again” Wade said. “By March  we were down to 16 feet. We are at 14 and a half feet now and if you’ve got low tide you can drop another foot to a foot and a half depending on the tide. “It’s fluid mud. It’s not hard sand” he said.
SEEKING A SOLUTION
In 2015 instead of expending the full amount budgeted for dredging the port’s navigation channel all the while knowing the bar channel would fall well below the needed depth within a couple months Wade proposed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge the upper portion and set aside the remaining funds from the fiscal year 2016 budget to pay for a trial project along the bar channel.
Instead of using a cutter head or hopper dredge to remove the material Wade would like to try a different kind of equipment to simply agitate that eight-mile stretch.
“If we can be out there for a 110-day trial or 120 or 99 days—however much money we have we’re going to expend every penny on this demonstration” Wade said.
The goal is to suspend the material down to 1200 milligrams per liter.
“If we can do that ships can sail through it. I won’t have 14 and a half. I’ll have 20 feet and that’s what we’ve got to have 365 days a year so we can have commerce coming in here” Wade said.
If the trial is successful Wade expects the port’s operation and maintenance budget to be split between the bar channel and the rest of the channel with funds expended throughout the year to suspend the silt in the bar channel. Hopefully Wade said the local dredging industry will be able to dedicate the equipment needed for the job. One idea is to use a hopper dredge but bypass the hopper Wade said. If the dredging industry cannot produce the needed equipment Wade said the port would consider building its own piece of equipment to use then apply for reimbursement from the Corps as needed.
“We’ve already gotten a preliminary drawing of what we want what we think will work” Wade said. “If nobody wants to do it we’ll go build the dredge ourselves or hire somebody to build it.”
IMPACTS FROM EARLY SEASON FLOODING
While the request for proposals from the Corps was released mid-January as planned Wade said the Corps doesn’t expect work to begin on the project until late spring or early summer due to dredging companies responding to the early season high water on the inland systems. Wade said he’s concerned more with the final result than the initial timeline.
“I will wait. I want it now but I’d rather wait until we have the right machine so we get a good demonstration” he said. “I don’t want to go spend $5 or $6 million just to say we went out there. I want a good demonstration. We’ll be patient.”
Wade knows that in addition to the fluff in the bar channel the Port of Morgan City will have to survey and address silting throughout the channel once the high water recedes.
“We just dredged down there and I’m losing that as we speak” he said. “But there’s nothing that can be done right now.”
Wade pointed out that other ports including the Port of Portland own their own dredge and apply to the Corps for reimbursement as needed. Wade said the Corps has been a good partner in thinking outside the box to identify a solution. Expediency is crucial Wade said because lack of access to medium draft vessels is impacting both importers and local shipyards which are having difficulty getting vessels to their dry docks.
“If we don’t do something—I’ve got a channel out there I can’t use. They’re going to stop funding us altogether and everybody loses” Wade said. “We might as well team up and work together.”
Wade expects the Corps to put forth a request for quotations (RFQ) at the first of the year with work to begin in March or April on the pilot program.
“We’ve got to have something I don’t care if you use an egg beater but it’s got to be stationed here at the port so we can maintain it 365 days a year” Wade said.
In spite of the current lack of access medium draft customers are still eager to come back to the Port of Morgan City once that 20-foot depth is restored.
“They’re all still calling saying ‘Let us know how you’re doing’” Wade said. “They come in here because they can make a quick turnaround and it’s good for their bottom line.”
Just over a year ago the Port of Morgan City was in the midst of an import-export boom. In August 2014 the port began serving Purina Mills International (PMI) a division of Land O’ Lakes.
PMI would typically import sea salt through the Port of Morgan City 3000 metric tons a time then export 4000 to 4500 tons of grain. The port was also seeing rice exported to the Caribbean.
“There’s a niche in the market for 3000 4000 and 5000-ton shipments. We’ve proven there is” Wade said. “We can service the Caribbean and Mexican markets.”
An economic impact study found that every ship coming into the Port of Morgan City had a $300000 impact at the local parish and state levels. Wade said now that he’s experienced import-export business at the Port of Morgan City he’s eager to get back to it.
“We could be doing a ship every other day” Wade said. “Start adding that up and we’ve got some serious money but I’ve got zero ships at my dock right now.
“We’ve had a taste of being in the [international] port business and I liked it.”