NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -- Like giant teeth, the cutter head on the J.S. Chatry chews at the river bottom.
At Head of Passes, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, one of the largest and most modern dredges in the U.S. helps maintain the channel for ocean-going ships.
In the process, Weeks Marine and other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors have created thousands of acres of new marsh through what is called the “beneficial use” of dredge material.
“We’ve got 6 or 7 miles of submerged pipeline out here,” said Mark Sickles, director of corporate and government affairs for Weeks.
Contractors can target precisely where to place the material, building land instantly on the other end of a pipe miles away.
“Take the material right from the cut where you’re digging and pump it right to where you want to go,” Sickles said. “That’s the most efficient way to dredge.”
The $60 million J.S. Chatry stretches over 300 feet long and is equipped with engines that produce over 20,000 horsepower.
In addition, an electric motor supplies a 600,000 foot-pound force to her working end, an 8.5 foot cutter-head.
2019 will go down in the record books for the longest period of high water on the Mississippi in over a century, according to National Weather Service records.
A higher river means a muddier Mississippi, potentially clogging the channel if it is not properly maintained.
“I call this the largest wetlands restoration project in the world,” said industry representative Sean Duffy with the Big River Coalition.
The Corps estimates it now saves just over half of the material dredged near the mouth of the river.
Over the last 11 calendar years, Duffy said dredges have coughed up enough land to build 9,598 acres in or near a state wildlife management area in Louisiana’s Birdsfoot Delta.
In fiscal 2019, the acreage totaled 2,048 acres, Duffy said.
The Corps spent $245 million this year to dredge the channel to its congressionally-authorized 45 foot depth, money provided by the maritime industry through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
“This is one of the busiest ship channels in the United States of America,” Sickles said. “There’s millions of tons of agricultural products moving out of this channel. It’s key to the entire country. This is not just a Louisiana project. This is a project for America.”