Corps, Congress Considering New Approach To Gulf Coast Dredging

Speaking to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during an October 23 hearing, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of engineers of the U.S. Army and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency is considering a dredging pilot program that would combine multiple ports in a region in an attempt to more reliably and efficiently maintain navigation channels.

Semonite said the Corps is considering the “multi-port dredging concept” as a way to execute dredging “in a logical sequence manner unconstrained by more traditional project-specific or account-specific execution.”

“We believe that cost and time savings can be achieved through a regional multi-purpose approach implemented over a multi-year time frame,” he said.

The plan would be innovative for the Corps, which typically only awards place- or project-specific dredging contracts limited to a specific number of days. That approach, though, can prove challenging in years—like 2019—when high water and historic shoaling outpace the supply of available dredges.

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Semonite mentioned the so-called multi-port dredging concept as part of his overview of the “three big initiatives we are doing to revolutionize the Corps.” The first objective, of which the multi-port dredging concept is a part, is to speed up project delivery. Accelerating project delivery, no doubt, has a secondary benefit of reducing costs. The second initiative, Semonite said, is to develop alternative financing through a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program and seeking opportunities for public-private partnerships.

“We are also revising metrics and developing multi-year capital budget concepts in our budgeting process,” he said.

The third objective, Semonite said, is to improve the Corps’ permitting process. The Corps has already adopted the One Federal Decision standard, which seeks to streamline development of environmental impact statements and records of decision for infrastructure projects and to limit the timetable for reviews and authorization decisions to two years or less.

“Our goal is to simplify the process for gaining infrastructure permits while protecting the environment in accordance with the law,” Semonite said.

Semonite’s comments on the multi-port dredging concept closely mirrored language in the Senate’s 2020 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, which would call for the Corps to execute a “regional dredge demonstration program” for the Gulf Coast region.

“Significant—and occasionally even historic—storm events continue to occur across the nation, impacting critical federal commercial navigation projects throughout the United States,” begins the section focused on the regional dredge demonstration program. “Those impacts have been particularly acute across the Gulf Coast region as significant and prolonged shoaling patterns resulting from these recurring storm events continue to degrade federal navigation channel conditions and adversely impact commercial deep-draft navigation.”

Flooding and the resultant shoaling, combined with the high use of waterways along the Gulf, often exhaust the availability of hopper dredges.

“High hopper dredge utilization rates have resulted in limited dredge availability for nationally significant dredging projects in recent years, in some cases critically impacting the acquisition process, particularly in the case of the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River Baton Rouge to Gulf project,” the bill states. “Corps dredging operations are typically planned, executed, and funded on a project-by-project basis, in an incremental fashion, on an annual cycle. To respond more effectively to critical national dredging requirements resulting from these significant recurring storm events, in combination with routine annual dredging demands, the Corps shall execute a multi-year dredging demonstration program within the Central Gulf Coast Region.”

The bill calls on the Corps to “seek efficiencies and cost savings by evaluating the region as a system in order to properly determine when combining work across multiple deep draft commercial navigation projects, across years, or across Construction and Operations & Maintenance (O&M) accounts is appropriate.”

To jump start the pilot program, the committee, via the bill, recommended $525 million in a “Regional Dredge Demonstration Program funding pot” within the Corps’ construction account to be used between Louisiana and Florida. The committee also recommends addition funds in the O&M account to support demonstration projects in the region.

The bill states the success of the program would be measured by:

• improved project schedules and faster construction execution within the demonstration area;

• fewer disruptions to other projects due to emergency dredging at Southwest Pass;

• fewer or no “bid busts” where the bid received for the demonstration project is higher than the Independent Government Estimate plus 25 percent;

• reduced cost per cubic yard at demonstration projects and/or other hopper dredge contracts;

• contract award process efficiencies for demonstration projects; and

• fewer “no bid” responses for Mississippi River Baton Rouge to Gulf hopper dredge contracts

The Mississippi River is coming off the longest high-water period on record, with the Corps battling flooding conditions on the Lower Mississippi River from late last year all the way to this past August. Shoaling at Southwest Pass led to long-lasting draft restrictions and multiple dredges being pulled from other projects. The emergency action caused an overextension of the hopper dredge fleet in general, though funding constraints for the Corps have been a recurring issue for years.

For now, though, the proposed demonstration plan awaits action from the full Senate and inclusion into the House version of the bill.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations recommended the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill of 2020 to the full Senate on September 30. The Senate has not yet taken up the measure. The House version, which does not include language for the demonstration project, was referred from the committee to the full House in May.

At present, the Corps is operating under a stop-gap continuing resolution that funds the government through November 21.