Maritime Businesses Say Mississippi River Clogging With Silt

Jan 11, 2012

A new study released at the Port of New Orleans says sediment in the Mississippi River is building up at rates that could severely clog commerce. Eileen Fleming reports maritime interests say more dredging is essential to the U.S. economy.

A study prepared for maritime business interests represented in the Big River Coalition says the Army Corps of Engineers needs more dredging funds. Last year the Corps' dredging budget was cut by $45 million. The coalition is lobbying to convince Congress and the White House that keeping the river clear is good business. Republican Congressman Charles Boustany of Lafayette is sponsoring a bill guaranteeing import taxes are set aside for dredging and channel maintenance.

"If we're going to double trade over the next five years as the president wants to do, if we're going to have an American economy that competes with China and India and Brazil and Russia, we have to compete in trade. And the key to this are our waterways."

The study prepared by former University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan says if silt climbs to levels that severely restrict traffic, cargo could plunge by $5.5 billion in exports, and nearly $4 billion in imports. The river is now dredged to 44 feet, one foot less than what's authorized by Congress. Ryan's study says operating at 44 feet for one year could result in a loss of about $1.5 billion in total spending.

Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange says a clogged river is also dangerous.

"Some of these ships are 145 feet wide. We had one actually hit a shoaling area two weeks ago, and it caused the ship to turn sideways in the middle of the channel, delaying two cruise ships from coming in, delaying all sorts of outbound ships from going out. And basically shut the river down for two to three hours."

Boustany says it's critical that the Mississippi River be ready for more maritime business expected when the Panama Canal completes its expansion in 2014.