Dredging situation worse on the Mississippi

POSTED: Monday, July 11, 2011 - 6:02pm

UPDATED: Monday, July 11, 2011 - 7:07pm

Billions of dollars traveling up and down the mighty Mississippi are at risk. That's if more federal money isn't given for getting rid of silt build-up in the river.

Right now, there's a record amount of silt piling up on the river floor. That's because this year's high flood waters brought in twice the normal amount of sediment. 

"The crossings are normally dredged to at least 60 feet in depth," says Mike Strain, Louisiana's Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry. "Now, they're at 40 feet. That's 20 feet of silt that has to be removed." 

Every year, the Army Corp of Engineers dredges the river, removing all the bottom build-up so big ships can maneuver the river safely. However, this year is different. 

You may recall, state officials were asking for $85 million to dredge the lower Mississippi River earlier this year. Now, that total has gone up to 9$5 million, and it's still climbing. The federal government only gave the Army Corp of Engineers $65 million for the project. Officials say it's not enough. 

"We must deal with this now," says Strain. "It can't wait because it's going to get worse." 

Strain says to get back to pre-flood levels, the Army Corp of Engineers probably needs up to $150 million dollars. He believes the federal government has that money. The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund brings in about $1.5 billion a year. That money comes from shippers, who pay an import tax on cargo. Right now, that fund has a nearly $6 billion surplus. 

Louisiana leaders say 90% of that fund is supposed to be used for maintaining the country's navigation channels, but last year, they say the federal government only set aside about half of that. 

"It's going into the general fund," says Sean Duffy. He's with the Mississippi River Maritime Association. "It's going towards bailouts, war efforts, social security issues. All those big expenses that our nation has." 

Now, Duffy and Strain are among a large group of people fighting to get more funding. The longer the silt builds up, the more of a problem it becomes. 

"The channel narrows and its much more difficult to bring ships up and down," says Strain. 

Already, the shipping industry is seeing the effects from the lack of dredging. "We've already seen some restrictions on deep-draft vessel restrictions in the form of daylight-only transit hours and one-way transit," says Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Baton Rouge.

It's only going to get worse. Ships will be forced to carry less cargo for fear of running aground. 

"It's estimated that each vesel to lose a foot of draft costs somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars per foot," says Hardman.

Some ships will stop going through the Mississippi altogether. "Ships will only be allowed one way at a time and you're going to markedly decrease the volume of traffic through the largest port system in the hemisphere," says Strain. 

Strain says President Barack Obama has made it a goal to double the nation's exports within the next five years. "It's inconceivable," he says. "The main commercial super highway for exports is grinding to a halt." 

He says the situation could get so bad that the Mississippi may have to shut down altogether. The first four days would cost the country about 300 million dollars. The cost then increases exponentially. 

Now, there's legislation in Congress to make sure those federal dollars in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund are used for dredging and river maintenance only. It's a battle they have to win before it's too late. 

Learn more about that legislation at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-104 

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