The Army Corps of Engineers stepped up efforts this weekend to clear sediment the Mississippi River’s high water is pushing into the main shipping channel linking the river with the Gulf of Mexico downstream from New Orleans.
Port officials, meanwhile, say shipping on the lower Mississippi shouldn’t be hindered now that upstream spillways have been opened to reduce the flow of water past Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The Corps of Engineers began opening the Morganza floodway above Baton Rouge on Saturday to divert part of the river’s flow into the Atchafalaya River basin, which empties into the Gulf at Morgan City, an offshore oil center west of New Orleans.
“We are working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to monitor the high-river situation, but all indications point to avoiding any major restrictions on the lower Mississippi River throughout this event,” said Gary LaGrange, the port’s president and CEO.
The Coast Guard said it does not expect significant restrictions unless the Carrollton gauge at New Orleans reaches 18 feet, which now is considered unlikely. The river is expected to remain steady at about 17 feet on the gauge during the next two weeks.
The gauge readings do not correspond to the depth of the river, whose channel is dredged to a minimum fresh-water draft of 45 feet at the river’s mouth.
The Corps of Engineers said it has added a fifth dredge at Southwest Pass, the main channel through the river delta, to deal with increased sediment from the higher river. Sediment buildup at the river’s mouth is an annual problem that this year’s high water is expected to intensify.
Reduced draft would primarily affect bulk carriers and tankers. The Mississippi is the nation’s main conduit for grain exports. Oil refineries along the lower river account for more than 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
Some refineries and chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge say high water has slowed dock operations but the Port of New Orleans said its cargo and cruise ship operations have continued uninterrupted.
“I have been assured by the Corps of Engineers that they can keep the river at its current level and flow,” LaGrange said. “A 17-foot reading at the Carrollton gauge is by no means unprecedented, and the Corps of Engineers’ officials believe they can maintain that level. The port’s cruise and cargo operations are ongoing as usual.”
Since May 11, the port handled 18 ships at its facilities — eight container ships, eight general cargo vessels and two cruise ships. A total of 61 oceangoing vessels have entered the river since May 11, according to the New Orleans Board of Trade.