Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Faces Big Challenges

08.30.2012 | In Latest News, Uncategorized

By Jim Wyerman, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications, Environmental Defense Fund

Several hundred leaders of the navigation sector met last week in New Orleans to discuss the future of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), a 3,000-mile navigation canal which connects all of the major gulf ports from Brownsville, Texas to Fort Myers, Florida. Begun in 1905, and completed in 1949, the GIWW is essential to the nation’s shipment of energy products, chemicals and other commodities. Its continuance, however, depends on successful coastal restoration—a bottom line recognized by many participants.

Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana. Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers digital library.

The annual gathering was hosted by the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), a 107-year-old group considered to be the authoritative voice for inland water navigation. Its members include barge lines, shippers, towboat operators, ports, shipyards, contractors, service firms and national companies whose livelihood depends on a safe and continuous operation of the GIWW. Executive director Jim Stark launched the meeting with a benediction for lost seamen and a member challenge, asking participants to engage fully in issues of declining infrastructure, safe operation and coastal restoration.

Canal Barge’s Spencer Murphy moderated an environmental panel at which CPRA’s Kirk Rhinehart briefed the group on the development and implementation of Louisiana’s state master plan. Helen Young of the Texas General Land Office began her speech by saying that her Texas colleagues were envious of all the progress and public support for coastal restoration in their sister state. More than one panelist noted that Louisiana’s current rate of land loss would mean that the parts of the GIWW will become open water—a situation for which the current ships and tugs are not designed.

Pat Gallwey, Chief Operating Officer for the Port of New Orleans, said “Coastal restoration is essential to the future of the GIWW. It is a critical issue for all of the ports in Louisiana.”  Gallwey led a navigation stakeholder group that provided input to the state master plan. Ports in the state employ 73,000 and “One in five jobs in Louisiana are [sic] in ports and port products,” said Gallwey.

Several experts spoke to increased hazards from aging locks and dams and reduced drafts in the Mississippi River due to extreme drought conditions. Bill Rankine of CITGO noted that “For every inch of draft lost, that means 170 barrels left behind.” Safety concerns are also triggered in such conditions, because the shallower, narrower channels increase the risk of collision and groundings. The likelihood of lock and dam closures was seen as an increasing risk that could severely impact a diverse set of business interests.

The US Coast Guard and US Army Corps of Engineers were a big part of the meeting, talking about port operations operation and maintenance budgets, and pending assessments of locks and dams.

Participants cautiously cheered passage of the RAMP Act, relating to spending more of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) balances on infrastructure improvements. Insiders were skeptical of actually seeing more HMTF money because such spending still hinges on the appropriations process.

The RESTORE Act was a frequent topic of conversation, with many companies wondering what was going to happen next. Kirk Rhinehart in his presentation made it clear that any RESTORE moneys coming to Louisiana will fold directly into the state master plan priorities.