Gary LaGrange believes keeping navigation channels open at the mouth of the Mississippi River is much more than a local problem. “I look at it as a national issue,” the president of the Port of New Orleans said. When the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t able to keep channels dredged to 45 feet, “a good portion of mid-America will be affected as well.”
|In recent weeks, vessel owners and pilots have grown concerned about the amount of silt clogging the channel, particularly in the Southwest Pass between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi. Some vessels reportedly are touching bottom. To continue to call at ports on the Lower Mississippi, vessels will have to lighten their loads. According to a Greek shipowners’ group, one foot less draft costs a ship $3 million in revenue, LaGrange said.
The port’s solution is to build a coalition from groups across the Midwest to address policy specialists and lawmakers in Washington with a single voice. The river and tributaries comprise some 14,500 miles of waterway, and 33 states and three Canadian provinces depend on the river to move their products to market, LaGrange said.
The Big River Coalition is still forming, but just about every major river port along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, groups representing grain, corn and soybean growers, and members of Congress from the region already have indicated support, LaGrange said.
The coalition’s immediate goal will be to restore the corps’ maintenance dredging budget, he said. The corps usually spends some $104 million to dredge channels on the Lower Mississippi River. That’s over budget, but in the past the corps has been able to move money between accounts to make up for additional costs. Officials say the agency is more constrained this year in its ability to transfer money, and all ports will have to share the pain of a tight budget.
This year’s budget for the Lower Mississippi is $53 million. The coalition hopes to convince Congress to add $35 million, which should be enough to meet current demand — if no extreme weather or flooding pushes more silt downstream.
The hardest part may be that channel conditions on the Lower Mississippi aren’t at a crisis point. If Congress restores the corps’ dredging budget, it should have the money it needs, LaGrange said.
“We have to react eight or 10 months earlier than we have reacted in previous years,” he said. “I don’t think the problem is any different, but the solution will have to be different. The money just may not come from the same source.”
Ports on the Lower Mississippi handled 134 million tons of international trade in 2009, and 146.5 million tons of domestic trade, according the American Association of Port Authorities. Those are the combined totals for the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana, a port district that runs 54 miles along the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.
“Those are not cargoes generated in New Orleans, they’re cargoes generated up and down the 14,500 miles of the Mississippi River and tributaries,” LaGrange said. “The Obama administration wants to double exports in the next five years. The way to do it is not by diminishing the size of your major artery carrying those exports out of this country.”
LaGrange said an incident in New Orleans in July 2008 was a warning signal. Two tank barges collided, spilling some 420,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the river. The Coast Guard closed the river for nearly five days, blocking outbound traffic and diverting major inbound ships to other Gulf ports.
“The detrimental economic impact was something like $280 million a day, growing exponentially after the fourth day,” LaGrange said. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “it’s no surprise that we were in touch with the powers that be in Washington just hours after the hurricane. They were asking us just how quickly we could get this river and this port back up and open.” It took 12 days.
If cargo doesn’t move through the Lower Mississippi ports, LaGrange said the alternatives are limited. The Port of Houston is the closet rival to the Lower Mississippi ports in the tonnage it handles.
“The Lower Mississippi River system is the largest port area in the world. It’s bigger than Shanghai, Singapore, Rotterdam,” LaGrange said. “How can you argue that it’s not worth maintaining its project depth at 45 feet?”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.