Asian carp

Nola Weighs In On Brandon Road Plan

Even though close to 1,500 river miles separate Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, Ill., from the Gulf of Mexico, waterway operators from the South—particularly those from Texas and Louisiana—are nonetheless important stakeholders when it comes to the current and future status of the lock, located along the upper reaches of the Illinois Waterway. That’s the message industry representatives delivered December 5 in New Orleans, La., as part of a public meeting to discuss the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ tentatively selected plan (TSP) for combating the upstream spread of nuisance fish—namely Asian carp—from the Mississippi River Basin to the Great Lakes.

The New Orleans public meeting and opportunity for public comment was the fourth such meeting the Corps has held to discuss the Brandon Road TSP, which calls for a combination of structural and nonstructural controls at the lock to impede the upstream movement of what the Corps calls aquatic nuisance species (ANS). The proposed structural controls would include an “engineered channel” within the downstream approach channel to the lock. Under the TSP, the engineered channel would feature an “electric dispersal barrier” which would be in use when no vessels were traversing the channel. When vessels were in the area, the Corps would employ an underwater “complex noise” system to frighten swimming fish away. The plan also calls for flushing the lock and using water jets to push stunned fish and floating ANS (eggs, for example) out of the lock. Under the TSP, the Corps would continue nonstructural controls already in place, including monitoring and overfishing.

The Corps estimates a $275.3 million price tag to constructing the engineered channel and associated structural controls. The annually recurring costs of nonstructural controls are estimated at $11.3 million, while the operation and maintenance costs for the engineered channel are estimated at $8.2 million.

Andrew Leichty, project manager for the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study-Brandon Road (GLMRIS-BR) overviewed the TSP, with Col. Craig Baumgartner, commander of the Rock Island District, and a panel of experts offering further background and responding to questions from attendees.

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Concern Over Brandon Road

Beau Bethune IV, general counsel and vice president of corporate affairs for Blessey Marine Services, was the first representative of the maritime industry contingent to offer public comment on the matter. Bethune was fast to point out why the viewpoints of maritime companies based in the South should matter with regard to Brandon Road.

“So why is Texas important?” Bethune said.

To answer that, Bethune pointed in part to lock statistics at Calcasieu Lock, located on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Lake Charles, La.

“The third ranking state in terms of economic impact at the Calcasieu Lock is the State of Illinois,” Bethune said. “There are collateral effects to altering the flow of goods anywhere you go.”

The Corps admits the structural controls recommended in the Brandon Road TSP would require a 40-day closure during construction and an increased wait time of 2.5 hours, along with reduced capacity. In 2016, 11.1 million tons of cargo traversed the lock, with an average delay of just over an hour. The average processing time at the lock is about 45 minutes, according to the Corps’ Brandon Road fact sheet.

Reduced capacity and increased delays will drive cargoes to road and rail, which are both more costly and less friendly to the environment, Bethune pointed out. It’s also estimated the navigation constraints following construction of the engineered channel will raise lockage costs about $1,200 per lockage.

Bethune urged the Corps to stick with measures already in place.

“At the end of the day, the nonstructural methods are working,” Bethune said. “They’re in use by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies. They’ve reduced the leading edge of the Asian carp population by 68 percent in the Illinois River, and the leading edge of the carp has not advanced in over 26 years.”

Spencer Murphy, general counsel for Canal Barge Company, pointed out that Illinois ranks third in terms of the destination for cargoes leaving Louisiana (behind only Texas and Florida). Thus, the impacts of the Brandon Road TSP would reach all the way to the Gulf Coast.

“If the Corps creates a bottleneck in Illinois at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, it will have direct consequences on interstate commerce, the national economy and the environment,” Murphy said. “From a local perspective, it is absolutely vital to Louisiana that we keep the Illinois River open for business.”

Murphy said Canal Barge is not pro-carp but instead pro-common sense, again calling for nonstructural measures to combat the spread of ANS.

Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, voiced his concern over risks to mariner safety posed by the TSP. Those include principally the threat of electric shock when the electric barrier is engaged.

“According to the Coast Guard, mariners—especially our deckhands—may be at increased risk of death or injury due to both the electric barrier and noise features,” Stark said.

Stark also noted the increased risk of collisions and allisions due to congestion related to reduced capacity and additional delays anticipated in the TSP.

Stark also voiced concern over turbulence aboard vessels due to lock flushing and water jets outlined in the TSP.

All these issues, along with increased wait times and reduced capacity, will come at great cost to the nation, Stark said.

“Reduced lock capacity will result in shippers shipping commodities to other modes. … This will directly affect and impact commuter travel times, safety, air quality and highway [operation and maintenance].”

Stark voiced support for existing nonstructural methods, which he said have been largely successful.

“Recent data indicates the leading edge of the Asian carp population in the river has been reduced by 68 percent by over fishing,” he said. “Further, that leading edge has not move any farther northward in 26 years. Nonstructural actions like this and others, such as piscicides, ought to be carefully considered before defaulting to expensive, disruptive structural and technical options outlined in the TSP.”

Other industry representatives who spoke against the TSP included Lynn Muench with American Waterways Operators; Larry Barbish with Canal Barge Company; Ingram Barge Company’s Patrick Morton; and a representative from Greater New Orleans Inc.

TSP Supporters

Chief among speakers in favor of the TSP was Robert Hirschfeld, water policy specialist and leader of the Stop Asian Carp campaign for the Prairie Rivers Network, who dismissed the idea that the Asian carp population and northward movement has been held in check.

“To say that the leading edge of the carp hasn’t moved in 26 years is to ignore population dynamics in lower pools, to ignore the fact that larvae, eggs and small fish have been increasingly found upstream, and to ignore the fact that a silver carp was found beyond an electric barrier in 2017,” Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld pointed out that the Corps has actually identified more invasive species likely to move from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River Basin than from south to north. He also highlighted the fact that the proposed TSP would likely not stop all movement of ANS from below the lock to upper pools. As such, Hirschfeld said the ultimate goal he’d like to see realized is a total closure of the lock.

“Indeed, the Corps’ study makes a strong case for a lock closure,” Hirschfeld said. “Under lock closure, the probability of the establishment [of ANS] effectively goes to zero. Of course, lock closure is also cheaper to the public.”

Hirschfeld, while admitting the strongest counter argument to lock closure is the interruption of navigation, scoffed at the notion that commercial navigation benefits the nation as a whole.

“The health of our rivers, as well as the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes industries and the thousands of jobs they support, should not be held hostage by a navigation industry that doesn’t pay its own way and could not stay afloat without large public subsidies,” Hirschfeld said.

Other members of the audience speaking in support of speedy implementation of the Brandon Road TSP included Angela Ayers, special advisor for the environment for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; Alfred House, an advisor with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission; and Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

The public comment period for the TSP closed December 8. The plan will now move into the agency decision and feasibility analysis phases. A chief’s report is expected in August 2019. Under the current timeline and assuming adequate appropriation from Congress and the emergence of a nonfederal cost-sharing partner, the Corps anticipates construction to begin in 2022 and be complete in 2025.