GIWW: Resilient, Reliable And Efficient

As steady as the great western rivers of the United States that roll toward the Gulf of Mexico is the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), the nation’s No. 1 energy highway, which follows the coast from Brownsville, Texas, eastward to Carrabelle, Fla.

The waterway, like others, has seen its share of challenges over the past year, but thanks to its mariners that move cargoes on it and the local, state and federal agencies that manage it, the GIWW remains resilient and reliable.

“Despite continual challenges posed by aging infrastructure, storms, high water and the pandemic, the GIWW remains a viable, safe and efficient route for bulk commodities,” said Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, the trade organization representing industry on the waterway. “GICA helps keep it that way through close coordination with its members and key government partners at the three U.S. Corps of Engineers districts and the four Coast Guard sectors through which the GIWW runs.”

Stark pointed to the recent Calcasieu Lock guidewall replacement project, which began in 2018 and wrapped up this year, as evidence of the partnerships that define operations on the waterway.

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“With the great cooperation and patience of our waterway users, we were able to get through significant delays at Calcasieu Lock during the now-completed guidewall replacement project,” Stark said, “weathering several periods of congestion delays that required close communication and coordination with the lock master to resolve.”

Over the past year, the waterway also saw a few other delays at its locks and floodgates, both planned and unplanned, “but none resulted in debilitating impacts on commerce,” Stark said. High water, most notably in the vicinity of Morgan City, La., and along the Atchafalaya River up to Port Allen, La., defined operations on the waterway for much of 2019, with only one significant casualty near Morgan City resulting in a short-lived closure.

Stark said waterway operators are now preparing for a major closure at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lock, which is the sole connection point between the eastern stretch of the GIWW and the Mississippi River. The lock is scheduled for a 30- to 60-day closure beginning around the first of September.

“This 30- to 60-day closure is necessary to make emergency repairs to stabilize the lock structure and correct water intrusion issues,” Stark said. “During the closure of the IHNC Lock, the temporary Chandeleur Sound–GIWW Alternate Route will be reestablished using the same general route as in 2016 when a similar lock closure made it necessary.”

The Alternate Route will carry eastbound tows below New Orleans on the Mississippi River to Baptiste Collette, an east-facing outlet of the river, and across Chandeleur Sound to Gulfport, Miss. Stark said, as in 2016, the Corps, Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will partner to establish the channel, mark it with virtual and physical aids to navigation (ATON) and provide weather forecasting.

“A working group with representatives of the tow industry, Mississippi River pilots, Gulfport pilots, the Coast Guard, the Corps and NOAA has met regularly to address and resolve key action items necessary to open the route when the Corps starts work on the lock,” Stark said. “To date, plans for route surveys, dredging and ATON establishment are moving forward smartly.”

GICA is assisting mariners who will use the route by developing best operating practices for the Alternate Route.

“Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard Captains of the Ports of New Orleans and Mobile plan to issue a joint Marine Safety Information Bulletin authorizing the route,” Stark said. “NOAA plans to add the route to its electronic charting system, and Seamen’s Church Institute will assist mariners with voyage planning. As in 2016, the National Weather Service is developing focused forecasting tools to ensure mariners have up-to-date weather information when planning their trips.”

GICA has established a Facebook page titled “Chandeleur Sound–GIWW Alternate Route 2020 Operations” as an interactive forum for operators and stakeholders to share information.

“Mariners are encouraged to visit the page to learn the latest on the closure and the Alternate Route and offer their observations and recommendations as they transit the route,” Stark said.

Other upcoming projects along the GIWW include new bridge construction at Sargent Beach, Texas, and a guidewall replacement project at Bayou Boeuf in south Louisiana.

“And further out, we are increasingly optimistic that the Colorado Locks and Brazos River Floodgates projects will move forward in the federal budget authorization process after being approved by the Corps,” Stark said.

Stark said operations have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, but again, partnerships and collaboration have allowed commerce on the waterway to march forward.

“GICA assisted early in the process, working with local Captains of the Port to provide industry feedback and to clarify Coast Guard policies and get the word out to our mariners,” he said. “Several companies were recipients of personal protective equipment (masks) from FEMA and MarAd through GICA’s work as a member of the industry-led Maritime Sector Coordinating Council, recently established under DHS.”

Stark said he is aware that some GICA members have had crew members and shoreside staff contract the virus, but impacts on the flow of commerce on the canal have been minimal.

GICA Annual Seminar

With the spread and concern over COVID-19 ongoing, the GICA board of directors decided to hold this year’s GICA annual seminar virtually. The seminar will convene online August 6, with two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. More information is available on the GICA website. Attendance is free, however, attendees must register through Eventbrite to participate at

Stark urged all waterway stakeholders to mark their calendars for next year’s 116th GICA Annual Seminar to be held August 4-6, 2021, at the newly-renovated Westin Canal Place in New Orleans.

Although this year’s challenges, at times, were daunting for GIWW mariners, Stark credited the association’s members for their perseverance and resiliency: traits he said characterize the maritime industry.

“Our members continue to impress with their cooperative attitude and ability to work through any issues that arise on our critical waterway,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll manage whatever the next challenge brings and keep commerce moving safely and efficiently on the GIWW.”