NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A years-long effort to deepen the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico cleared another hurdle, winning the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The senior civil engineer at the Corps has recommended approval of the $237 million plan to dredge the channel another 5 feet to a depth of 50 feet, allowing for some of the largest container ships and oil tankers to call on New Orleans.
"If this doesn't happen, we're not looking at the future," said Sean Duffy of The Big River Coalition, an industry group.
Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget must still sign off on the funding. However, Duffy called the Corps action “monumental” for the Mississippi River.
"On a large vessel, every foot of draft equals about a million dollars in cargo," Duffy said, meaning another 5 feet of draft could potentially represent $5 million in additional cargo.
The deepening of the Panama Canal has made possible today's massive vessels, referred to in the shipping industry as Neopanamax or New Panamax ships. Container ships meeting that new classification can carry the equivalent of up to 13,000, 20-foot containers (TEUs).
In South Louisiana, Duffy said, the focus would likely be on bulk cargo, especially farm exports.
While 60 percent of America's grain exports already pass through South Louisiana, Duffy predicted that figure could rise to 75 percent because larger ships would cut costs for exporters and provide transportation savings that would ultimately be passed on to farmers.
Atlantic seaports from New York to Miami have already dug their channels to 50 feet, and Houston recently invested $100 million in a set of cranes capable of servicing New Panamax vessels.
However, the 50-foot channel in the Mississippi River would make the five South Louisiana ports the deepest on the Gulf Coast.
"When you're talking about the competitive advantage, if we're the only 50-foot channel on the Gulf Coast, it makes everything cheaper," said Matt Gresham, Director of External Affairs for the Port of New Orleans.
The Corps' report pegged the benefit-to-cost ration at 7.2 to 1, finding the project was "economically justified and environmentally sustainable."
The state's share of the cost, 25 percent, could be spread over a number of years, supporters said.
They also note that deepening the river's main channel by 5 feet would provide an added benefit for the coast.
Dredge material would be used to build 1,500 square miles of wetlands in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the state's Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management area.