Watchers of the Army Corps of Engineers say it’s remarkable how well the corps has done to keep channels open in the face of skimpy budgets. But how much longer can the corps keep up with the silt under today’s budget constraints?
The problem is most apparent at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The river carries tons of silt from the Midwest, and at its southern end, the ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans are the largest and sixth-largest U.S. ports by total tonnage.
The corps has maintained the channel between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico at its authorized 45-foot depth and 150-foot width “24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Jim Walker, the corps’ navigation program manager. But the agency insists it may not be able to keep the silt at bay much longer.
The president’s 2010 budget for keeping the Lower Mississippi clear was $62 million, but according to the Gulf States Maritime Association, the corps usually gets $105 million to maintain the channels. They complained vessels already are touching bottom in places and want members of Congress to restore the $57 million balance to the dredging budget.
In fiscal 2010, which ended Sept. 30, dredging costs were closer to $120 million. “We had one of the highest dredging years ever — one of the top 10 of all time,” Walker said. The corps can reprogram — shift money from other projects — to make up the shortfall, but it’s at the cost of other projects.
“The dollars have to come from somewhere. It came from other projects,” Walker said. “I don’t want to say they were less important, but the Lower Mississippi is the largest tonnage (port region) in the country. You’ve got to keep that project open.”
Of course, other ports have pressing needs. “They get the Mississippi down to 45 feet, but Gulfport, Lake Charles or Freeport doesn’t get dredged,” said Dave Sanford, director of navigation policy and legislation for the American Association of Port Authorities. “That’s a mixed bag for us. They rob everybody else to get well on the Lower Miss.”
Sanford said the budget for corps operations and maintenance doesn’t attract Congress the way authorizing millions for new construction does. “No member of Congress ever got elected for maintaining something,” he said.
What galls operators and port managers is the government collecting far more in Harbor Maintenance Tax than it spends on dredging. At the end of October, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund had a $5.6 billion surplus. The solution is obvious: Spend the money and clear the harbors.
In truth, the trust fund is only an accounting marker in the government’s general revenue. Walker said the corps spends the money appropriated by Congress, then gets reimbursed by the Treasury.
“What the Mississippi River folks are bringing up is that we have the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that’s collecting $1.6 billion in revenue each year. We are requesting around $750 million per year,” Walker said. “We spend whatever Congress appropriates.”
With new Republican leadership in Congress dedicated to cutting the budget, the prospects for more funds are bleak. Walker said Lower Mississippi operators have been accustomed to channels dredged to their authorized depth, but that may change.
“No other port in the country has that kind of expectation. You dredged, and you kept full dimensions available almost regardless of cost,” Walker said. “But we have to live within our budgets, and in some cases that’s going to mean some width restrictions or possibly depth restrictions.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.