By David Gambrel

“In 1859 General Winfield Scott, commander of the Army, had examined the sandbars and found thirty-eight ships in the river trying to get into the Gulf, twenty-one in the Gulf trying to get into the river, and three ships aground on the bar itself; another fifty ships were waiting to depart New Orleans.”1 In 2009, a total of 4,226 world class ships called on the Port of New Orleans, all of which sailed the same waters that these much smaller 19th-century ships found nearly impassable. Decades of incredible engineering and construction work were required to make Southwest Pass the navigational fairway helmsmen found today.

How did we make the transition from shoals and shallow bars to the straight navigational deep-draft avenue of today? How is it possible that more than 4,200 ships can avoid wrecks, snags and other ships on their way to terminals upriver? There are basically two answers: the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the river pilots. The Lower Mississippi River we know today does not resemble that of 1859.

The Dredging Requirement
The 45 ft channel that seems so natural today is not natural at all, and has only existed for a relatively few years. Given a few short years of flooding and zero maintenance it would eventually revert to the one of 1859. Prior to 1987, the channel through Southwest Pass was maintained at a depth of 40 ft below mean low water.

Deepening the channel to 45 ft was a mixed blessing. On balance it was very good thing, because it enabled the Lower Mississippi River to become the nation’s largest port complex in terms of tonnage handled. However, this blessing came with some new costs. First, it came with an unending responsibility to dredge an estimated 30 million cubic yards per year in the main channel and branches to maintain channel depth and width. Next, it came with an absolute demand to control saltwater intrusion into the municipal and industrial water supplies, a consequence of deepening the channel to the Gulf. Thus began a high-pressure job for the Corps, balancing all of the new technical and planning responsibilities with the constant need to get federal funding.

While these problems may seem new, the Corps was formed in a fishbowl of controversy during the mid-1800s and has always known conflict and controversy. Today it finds itself increasingly squeezed by the river pilots, who believe the Corps allows the deep draft channels to become shallower and narrower by not pushing hard enough for adequate funding. The pilots say shallower and narrower channels cause two problems: decreased safety and lighter cargo loads. Lighter loads are of concern to the entire economic community; tonnage lost cannot be made up. Inadequate draft maintenance therefore brings in the business community.

River Pilots & the Safety Issue
A pilot from three different groups is required to take a vessel from the Gulf entrance to Southwest Pass to Baton Rouge. Each pilot has a specific range of expertise: the Associated Branch Pilots (Bar Pilots) go from the Gulf sea buoy to the Head of Passes; the Crescent River Pilots cover the stretch from Head of Passes to New Orleans; the New Orleans-Baton Rouge (NOBRA) Pilots handle the responsibility from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

It is a well-known fact in Louisiana that state-commissioned river pilots earn $321,000 per year. The other factor of Louisiana river pilotage touched on by literally every written pilot commentary is consanguinity (relationship by blood), which has annoyed people for years. To say it plainly, if your father was not a pilot, you need not apply. Since consanguinity was approved for this case by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947 (Kotch, et. al. v. Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners for the Port of New Orleans), arguing against it is like kicking a 500-lb marshmallow. It is time to get over it.

This article is not about pilots’ salary or consanguinity; it is about facing the dredging/safety issue. The pilots are the ones charged with the responsibility of guiding ships safely into the strong outflow of the river without running aground. They are the ones responsible for constantly relearning the changing river bottom, for knowing where submerged danger lies.

When passing another ship in a narrow, a pilot must know how and when it can be done safely. When a pilot has to get on a ship before it enters the river, the weather may be cold, windy and raining, and the ship may be rolling. Even if it is also dark, the pilot has to grab a Jacob’s ladder (rope ladder) hung over the side of the ship and step off the pilot boat onto it. The ladder may be swinging wildly, but it is still his job to get aboard and advise the officer at the helm. In his mind the number one job is ship safety from the time it enters the river until it leaves.  

The Money Issue
A typical Panamax vessel will lose 2,400 metric tons of cargo for every foot of draft lost. In other words, if a vessel has to light-load by 1 ft it will lose 2,400 metric tons. The average Capesize vessel will lose about 3,600 metric tons. The value of such losses depends on current prices, but three factors are almost always involved: deadfreight, demurrage and short freight. Using information from deep-draft ships that it handled, Navios Shipping Agency calculated 1 ft loss of coal cargo would cost the shipper $440,000 on a Panamax vessel and $2,164,500 on a Capesize vessel.

It is faulty reasoning to assume the tonnage may be lost to the Lower Mississippi River, but not to the United States as a whole. First of all, no vessel is going to go to another U.S. port to pick up the short tonnage because the cost of doing so is simply too great. Also, there is almost zero chance of finding a small quantity of suitable cargo available at another deep draft terminal. Finally, and most significant, is the fact that the time lost by not being able to fully load on the Mississippi River cannot be made up. Revenues lost due to shallow draft and narrow channels will be lost forever.

On January 22, 2011, the bar pilots issued a recommended draft limitation of 44 ft (fresh water) when transiting the area of the Southwest Pass from the sea buoy to mile 1.5 above Head of Passes. This draft reduction had been caused by the failure of the Corps to maintain the channel in the Pass to project dimensions. However, on March 1, they reset this limitation to 45 ft upon learning the Corps had put two dredges to work in mid-February: one hopper dredge and one cutter-head dredge. Another dredge was scheduled to go to work on March 16.

The authorized channel width is 750 ft from New Orleans to Southwest Pass mile 17.5 Below Head of Passes (BHP) and 600 ft to mile 22 BHP. The pilots’ chief concern was passing ships in narrow channels, and the channel was down to 340 ft wide in one place. Since the bar pilots use Corps data for piloting ships, their claim of reduced channel width was not disputed.

Now that dredges are operating to remove shoals the pilots are temporarily satisfied the channels in Southwest are being returned to project dimensions. However, they know it will be a recurring situation unless steps are taken to secure constant funding of the right amounts.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Tax were authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. The purpose of the tax, a 0.125% ad valorem tax levied on cargo imported or domestically moved through federally-maintained channels and harbors, is to pay for Corps operations and maintenance of these ports and harbors.

The problem with the Trust Fund is that far more money is being collected than is being appropriated by Congress for the Corps to spend. The under-spending problem is so acute the Trust Fund now has a book surplus of $4.7 billion. Two bills (H.R 104 and S. 412) were introduced in Congress within the last two months for the express purpose of ensuring “that amounts credited to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund are used for harbor maintenance.”

RAMP (Realize America’s Maritime Promise) is a coalition of maritime companies formed to seek a legislative fix to the maintenance dredging crisis. Of all the leading industries who depend upon deep draft loading, only the coal industry is not represented by membership in RAMP.

Rising Tide, John M. Barry, 1997, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

About the Author
Dave Gambrel is the president of Logisticon, a coal transportation consultancy. He was senior transportation executive of a major mining company for 15 years, and was one of the founders of the Mississippi Valley Coal Exporters Council. As a private consultant he has advised barge operators on such matters as meeting and loading ocean vessels directly from barges, and stevedoring companies on business opportunities on the Lower Mississippi River. He may be reached at  or at mailto: