Work Begins to Deepen the Channel of the Lower Mississippi River

Sep 18, 2020  | 7 min  | Ep4605

According to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, the Mississippi River and its tributaries account for over $750 billion of the nation’s economy. Big Muddy also supports more than 2.4 million jobs with more than a few of those jobs involved in shipping grain to ports in Louisiana.

One in every five Pelican State jobs is port-related. Work on the docks makes up nearly 23 percent of the state’s annual income.

But a new project is expected to help add more to everyone’s bottom line.

John Torpy has more in our Cover Story. Producer Contact: torpy@iowapbs.org   Twitter: @TVTorpy

 
A hurdle for shipping along the lower Mississippi River is being removed and it is anticipated to provide benefits for businesses all along the aquatic super highway. 
Mike Steenhoek, Executive director, Soy Transportation Coalition: “So we estimate that farmers could generate an additional $461 million every year. Not because supply has changed, not because demand has changed, but just simply because the supply chain, our transportation system is more economical and more efficient.”
 
The final stretch of the Mississippi River before it meets the Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the most important ports in North America. Producers of a vast array of commodities from across the country use the Mississippi River as an entry point to ship their products worldwide. 
This month, the state of Louisiana and the Army Corps of Engineers teamed up to deepen the shipping channel from 45 to 50 feet, making way for bigger ships and more commerce.
Sec. Shawn Wilson, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development: ” think we'll really, um, create an additional million plus dollars per vessel in a sense of capacity because they can now go deeper, which means they can carry more, which means they can sell more for the same shipping costs of that one vessel.”
 
The Mississippi River Ship Channel dredging project comes with a price tag of just over $270 million. A majority of the bill will be paid with federal funds but the State of Louisiana and a number of agricultural groups are sharing some of the costs. The Army Corps of Engineers calculates the work will pay for itself in three years. The project is expected to return $7.20 for every dollar spent constructing and maintaining the channel.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, says the deeper channel will have far reaching benefits for the rest of the country. 
Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director, Soy Transportation Coalition: ”Our analysis highlighted that you can, you'll be able to put an additional 500,000 bushels of soybeans per vessel. You often find in, in some of these ocean vessels, 2.4 million bushels of soybeans per vessel, this can easily push it up to 2.9 million bushels of soybeans by just going an additional five feet,/So you're just improving the economics of the supply chain. We estimate that it's going to be a 13 cent per bushel savings on the per bushel delivered price.” 
 
The project is expected to benefit the ports at Baton Rouge, Plaquemine, New Orleans, and the Port of South Louisiana by providing deep draft access to larger vessels currently moving through the newly expanded Panama Canal. 
Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana spoke to Market to Market in the spring of 2017 about the need for a deeper shipping channel. 
Paul Aucoin, Executive Director - Port of South Louisiana :“and we become un-competitive and unreliable and that goes – that hurts our farmers. And when you become uncompetitive and unreliable, they’ll go someplace else. These countries that are buying our grain will find another place to buy it that’s more reliable and more competitive."  
 
For products headed to overseas markets, a shallow channel was forcing some cargo vessels to leave the port at less than full capacity. According to Aucoin, the smaller loads are costing shippers millions of dollars, depending on how much cargo has to be left on the dock. 
For ships coming into port, some cargo can be delayed due to the depth of the water in the channel. Heavier loads have to wait until it’s safe to allow ships to navigate up river.   
Paul Aucoin, Executive Director, Port of South Louisiana: ”Now what happens when the ships coming in fully loaded at 45 feet and there's a 40 foot restriction, they just gotta stay outside for a number of days until the restrictions that they need to come in. We've had a ship that stayed outside the Mississippi River for 42 days at $25,000 a day.” 
 
With the dredging project underway, Aucoin is pleased his three-year old prediction for attracting new businesses to the area has come true. 
Paul Aucoin, Executive Director, Port of South Louisiana: “ We have 17 new industries that are committed to coming into the port district and they will spend $23.2 billion billion building these new industries, which will be utilizing the river to import and export their product.”
 
From the mouth of the Mississippi River, the project will work its way north past New Orleans and stop at the Port of Baton Rouge. Along the way, material pulled from the bottom of the channel will be used to help build up shorelines and restore wetlands. 
The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is advising the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development on the best locations for additional material to be placed along the Pelican state’s coastline.  
Bren Haase, Executive Director, CPRA : “It passes through a very fragile environment that is coastal Louisiana, that, uh, many folks are aware, um, has been losing land at a tremendous rate. It's really a, um, a tragedy, uh, in a catastrophe of national significance./ Nonetheless, that environment protects that transportation system through which it travels, uh, and without our coastal wetlands, without our coastal ecosystem, protecting that transportation system, uh, it would be obviously a tremendous blow to, to the state, to the nation's economy. 
 
Hasse estimates the project could produce enough material to restore up to 15,000 acres of coastal wetlands.
Bren Haase, Executive Director, CPRA: “When we have a situation where we're dredging a lot of sediments, which of course would be the case in a Mississippi River deepening project. We want to be able to capitalize on that and use those to help build coastal wetlands that are good for the ecosystem, good for our environment, but again, in turn good for our economy as it helps protect that transportation system.”
 
Sec. Shawn Wilson, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development: “You don't want to grab a shark by the tail because that shark won't eat that shark won't do anything. And it has to keep moving to do that. The lifeblood of our agricultural economy and our manufacturing and petrochemical world is about moving that product from one stage to the next. So each of those stages can compoundly add value. So, um, I would tell you that we're all connected in the river.”
 
For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy
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