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 bo