IHNC Lock Replacement Proposal Draws Fire

Sean Mickal, lead planner for the IHNC replacement lock project, is confronted by a local resident. (Photo by Frank McCormack)

March 20, 2017

By Frank McCormack


The New Orleans Engineer District held a pair of public meetings in the last month to discuss with members of the community surrounding the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (also called the Industrial Canal) the agency’s plan to replace the waterway’s near-century-old lock.

The Corps hosted a public meeting at the St. Bernard Parish Government Complex in Chalmette February 23, with a second meeting held March 7 in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward at the Dr. King Charter School.

Sean Mickal, lead planner for the project, led the crowds through a presentation on the lock replacement history and plan.

The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) connects the Mississippi River below New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods to Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The canal and lock represent the sole connection between the eastern and western reaches of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW).

The Port of New Orleans oversaw construction of the existing lock, which measures 640 feet by 75 feet by 31.5 feet deep. The lock opened to navigation in 1923.

The existing lock is located just inland from the Mississippi River between a pair of drawbridges, the St. Claude Avenue drawbridge on the south end of the lock and the Claiborne Avenue drawbridge just north of the lock chamber.

The federal government began leasing, maintaining and operating the canal in 1944 and purchased the lock and 2.1 miles of the canal in 1986. In 1956, Congress authorized replacing the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock. The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 then modified that authority, allowing the Corps to replace the lock with a new one either on the IHNC or farther downriver at Violet, La.

In 1997, the Corps, along with the Port of New Orleans as the local sponsor, proposed a deep-draft replacement for the current lock. That plan, which would have expanded the footprint of the IHNC, was met with intense objections from the surrounding community. While lawsuits and judgments delayed the project, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ultimately doomed the plan for a deep-draft lock at the IHNC. In 2007, Congress ordered the Corps to close the nearby Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which ended the deep-draft aspirations for the IHNC. The Port of New Orleans then withdrew its support for a deep-draft replacement, and the Corps scrapped the original plan altogether.

Today, with the lock now almost exclusively used by the inland towboat and barge industry, the Corps is proposing a shallow-draft lock replacement to help eliminate a constant bottleneck on the GIWW at the IHNC. Average wait times at the lock hover around 16 hours. The small size of the existing lock forces companies to move tows through the lock one barge at a time, greatly increasing transit times.

Mickal said the Corps considered several shallow-draft options before settling on a lock that will measure 900 feet by 110 feet with a depth of 22 feet.

The proposed lock would cost just under a billion dollars and be located north of the Claiborne Avenue drawbridge within the existing footprint of the IHNC. Under the plan, the St. Claude Avenue drawbridge would be replaced.

Community Reaction

At the New Orleans meeting, Mickal said the Corps opted for the 900- by 110-foot lock because “it provides the greatest economic benefits—to the nation.” That qualifier, “to the nation,” was met with groans from audience members, many of whom feel slighted when it comes to waterways that bisect the area.

During Hurricane Katrina, a portion of the eastern flood wall on the IHNC collapsed following a barge collision, sending water into the Lower Ninth Ward. Storm surge was also pushed up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet into St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans.

Many questions during the Q&A session at the meetings focused on responsibility for potential flooding or water quality issues.

One audience member asked, “Who’s responsible if a levee failure occurs?”

“There is no defined responsible party,” Bobby Duplantier, senior project manager for the Corps, replied.

“How do you expect the community to trust the Corps after being flooded twice?” an audience member asked.

On the subject of responsibility, a woman in the crowd asked Corps officials if the agency would waive its sovereign immunity with regard to the project.

“The answer is no,” Duplantier said.

Many in the crowd were concerned that a more efficient lock will result in more frequent bridge closures.

“Where’s the traffic going?” one asked.

In the end, the entire question and answer and comment sessions will be entered into the official record with regard to the lock. The comment period runs through March 14. The Corps anticipates releasing the final Chief’s Report for the project in June 2018. Construction on the project is expected to take about a dozen years, depending on adequate funding from Congress.

Comment Period Extended

In response to requests from the communities surrounding the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, particularly those from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and the Parish of St. Bernard, the New Orleans Engineer District announced March 15 the agency has extended the public comment period for its tentatively selected plan to replace the existing lock with a larger shallow-draft lock.

The public comment period, which was originally set to end March 14, will now run through April 7. The Corps will also host a third public meeting to receive public comments. The time and location of that public meeting will be announced at a later date.

Members of the community at both the St. Bernard and New Orleans meetings had asked the Corps to extend the public comment period.

“I’m relieved to learn that the communities who stand to suffer years’-long negative impacts—without experiencing any direct benefit from the lock expansion—will have more time to understand the project and enter their comments into the public record,” said Sarah DeBacher, a board member of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and a resident of Holy Cross on the eastern side of the IHNC, who was present for the New Orleans public meeting.

The full report for the plan to replace the IHNC Lock is available online at www.mvn.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/IHNC-Lock-Replacement.

To submit a comment by mail, send information to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, care of Mark Lahare, CEMVN-PDC-CEC, 7400 Leake Ave., New Orleans, LA 70118.