This time last year, operators transiting Calcasieu Lock on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Southwest Louisiana were facing significant delays. Demolition began in June 2018 on the south guidewall, with estimates at the time calling for construction on a new wall to last through late 2019.
At the beginning, the construction plan called for the lock to be closed to navigation from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, then open to navigation on weeknights and all weekend. Construction crews removed the entire old south guidewall, then proceeded to drive metal guide pilings and employ a steel template atop the guide to allow for precise placement of the new, permanent pilings. Mariners came to call the steel template “the can opener.”
The locking schedule, combined with trepidations over navigating past the template and new construction, led to significant queues at Calcasieu, which swelled to the 120s and 130s last June and July. Wait times grew to as much as four days.
Staring at more than a year’s worth of persistent congestion, members of the maritime industry, represented by the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and both mariners and port captains, came together to identify solutions to ensure safe transits through the lock and reduce the queue.
“In August of 2018, we met at Calcasieu Lock after discussing various corrective actions that we could take as a collective group,” said Victor Landry, the Corps’ operations project manager for the GIWW. “To make this transpire efficiently, we needed the support of the U.S. Coast Guard and navigation industry leaders.”
Solutions identified included using an assist boat when transiting the lock, boosting communication with tows nearing the front of the line to avoid needless delays, and adjusting the construction schedule to allow for more extended periods of vessel traffic. Construction was altered to Monday through Thursday, with lockages at night and continually from Thursday night through Monday morning.
Zealand David Deloach, better known as “Z Dave,” dispatched one of Deloach Marine’s vessels, the mv. Poseidon, to Calcasieu Lock to serve as an assist boat for vessels transiting the lock. He and a couple other towing companies developed a plan for multiple assist boats helping tows through the lock.
“By putting assist vessels at the lock, we were able to reduce the cue from over 100 tows waiting to less than 50 immediately, and further down to a normal number of less than 10 within a couple months,” Deloach said.
Now a year later, it’s clear that collaboration paid huge dividends, not only for commercial navigation but for construction as well.
“Last year at this point, we were facing serious backlogs and congestion,” GICA President Jim Stark said. “We’re very pleased that, in partnership with the Coast Guard and the Corps, we were able to identify some solutions.”
Stark and Landry both emphasized the importance of collaboration in addressing both the commercial and construction concerns at the lock.
“Collaboration is paramount for success when you have to limit lock and waterway operations,” Landry said. “I value the experienced professionals from both industry and the Coast Guard and rely on them heavily for constructive input to balance the construction schedule and maintain safe waterborne commerce.
“When we communicate and share ideas and knowledge, mission success is highly probable,” Landry added.
“The team comprised of the Corps, USCG, GICA, AWO and seasoned port captains put our heads together and we lowered the queue numbers to the single digits fairly quick,” he said. “We also established a tropical weather hurricane operations plan.”
Deloach said the agreement among companies offering assist vessels worked quite well, allowing vessels to safely transit the lock.
“No one had to wait for an assist, and if you did find your boat busy, you could always get one of the others,” he said. “It just goes to show what we can do as an industry to provide solutions to problems when given a platform by the Coast Guard and the Corps to let us manage a situation.”
As of July 2019, construction at Calcasieu is largely complete. Landry said just a small punch list remains.
“As a matter of fact, we have been passing traffic during the weekdays with great frequency,” he said.
Landry said guidewall repairs are a common maintenance item for many of the aging locks along the GIWW. Currently, the Corps is tackling guidewall repairs at both Port Allen and Algiers locks.
“The guidewalls experience a great deal of wear and tear and constantly need repairs,” Landry said.
Other ongoing work throughout the system includes installing mooring buoys at several locks, and in August the Corps will begin to repair corrosion on the east side sector gates at Leland Bowman Lock. The Corps also continues to address maintenance issues at the 98-year-old Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lock in New Orleans, with the re-evaluation report for replacement of that lock due later this year. Replacement of the undersized and failing IHNC Lock has been decades in the making, with industry supporting a larger lock and the surrounding community opposing the lock altogether.
“I can sympathize with the surrounding neighbors around IHNC Lock, with concerns to a big construction project, but we are taking so many steps to mitigate impacts to the neighborhoods,” Landry said. “We do our best to communicate openly and transparently as to what we are planning to do [to replace] a timeworn bottleneck to critical navigation traffic, that impacts the commerce of the entire nation, not just the region. The planned replacement lock will move vessels more efficiently and safely through New Orleans.”
Soon, the Corps will also apply lessons learned at Calcasieu as it tackles a similar guidewall replacement on the south chamber wall of Bayou Boeuf Lock near Morgan City, La. High water from the Atchafalaya River has delayed construction at Bayou Boeuf. Current estimates call for that project to get underway in August.
Bayou Boeuf will be closed to navigation Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with vessel traffic moving through at night and continually from 7 p.m. Thursdays through 7 a.m. Mondays. Tim Connell, the Corps operations manager overseeing Bayou Boeuf, said the construction schedule isn’t the only lesson learned from Calcasieu that will be applied to Bayou Boeuf.
“The entire existing guidewall will not be completely removed,” Connell said. “It will be removed in segments with no more than 350 feet missing at any time, and the work will be sequenced in 80-foot progressions. As each monolith is completed, additional demolition will occur, keeping the missing wall to a minimum.”
Another difference at Bayou Boeuf is that Bayou Chene can be used as an alternate route. With all those measures in place, the Corps does not anticipate a problem with congestion at Bayou Boeuf. Connell said it should take the contractor, City Approval Enterprise, about a year to replace the guidewall at Bayou Boeuf.