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Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association Holds Virtual Seminar

Members of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA) and stakeholders of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) gathered around their respective computers and smart devices August 6 for the association’s 115th annual seminar, held remotely via the GoToWebinar platform.

And while the GICA Seminar attendees were connected only by webcam and streaming audio, the conference nonetheless retained the sense of camaraderie, professionalism and partnership that define operations on one of the nation’s busiest inland waterways.

Jim Stark, president of GICA, opened the seminar with a look at the state of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which, despite infrastructure work, continued recovery from tropical storms and impacts from COVID-19, continues to be a reliable and efficient means of transportation.

“I’m pleased to report that, through the work of many of you online today, our 1,300-mile waterway and the companies it supports have persevered,” Stark said. “I’m also pleased that GICA is part of that effort to persevere. Relying on members’ expertise, input, complaints and suggestions, GICA continues to stand watch as the voice of the GIWW and its users. And I think that voice continues to bring value to our membership.”

Stark also thanked Tom Marian, general counsel of Buffalo Marine Service Inc., for his two years of service leading the board of directors for GICA. He also welcomed Mary McCarthy, director of safety and quality systems for Canal Barge Company, as the new chairperson.

As part of his opening remarks, Stark also announced his plan to pass leadership of the association to a new president next summer.

“I plan to retire effective next year at our 116th annual seminar,” Stark said. “So I’m going to save the retirement speech and all the sentiments until then, but I thought it would be best to get the word out well in advance to facilitate a smooth transition and successor.”

Marian praised Stark for his leadership.

“It’s hard to believe you’ve been there for a decade,” Marian said. “And as I’ve said before and everyone agrees, you’ve done wonderful job.”

Marian said the goal is to announce the next president of the association sometime next spring, with the successful candidate taking the helm at the annual seminar next summer.

Congressional Update

The first speaker to address the GICA membership was Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc. (WCI). Zea offered an update on work underway on the nation’s waterways, along with the latest developments from Washington, D.C., relating to the nation’s maritime industry. Zea said two main priorities for WCI this year are two anticipated pieces of legislation: the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the Energy & Water Development appropriations bill.

“Our main goal [in WRDA] is to adjust the construction and major rehabilitation cost-share for Inland Waterways Trust Fund projects,” Zea said.

Zea pointed to WRDA 2016, which adjusted the cost-share for coastal port projects from a 50-50 split to 75 percent from the federal treasury and 25 percent from the non-federal project sponsor.

“Our main goal is to conform the Inland Waterways Trust Fund cost-share construction program to match what is being done for the coastal ports, which is 75-25,” Zea said.

A second goal for the next WRDA is for Congress to authorize all Inland Waterway Trust Fund-related projects that already have a Corps Chief’s Report.

Zea pointed to the cost-share adjustment for the Olmsted Locks & Dam project to 85-15, which moved completion of that project up four years, meaning the nation began to see an estimated $600 million a year in benefits that much sooner. Expediting construction in the final stretch of the project also lowered Olmsted’s cost estimate at completion by $258 million. That cost savings—and freeing up funds that would’ve otherwise been spent on Olmsted—meant downstream cost savings and accelerations at construction projects at the Lower Monongahela, Kentucky and Chickamauga locks.

Zea reported that the current Senate version of WRDA 2020 contains a cost-share adjustment to 65 percent from general revenue and 35 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. It also has language to authorize the Brazos River Floodgates and Colorado River Locks project at a 65-35 split. The House version, similarly, authorizes a 65-35 cost-share adjustment but with a sunset after seven years. Also, the Brazos/Colorado  project remains at a 50-50 split in the House version.

Finally, with regard to WRDA or any appropriations bill, Zea encouraged all waterway stakeholders to reach out to their representatives in Congress. WCI offers guidance language for letters to Congress on its website.

“Now more than ever, with people not being able to come up to Washington, D.C., sending letters like this is important because offices do track this,” Zea said.

Corps District Updates

GIWW stakeholders also heard from representatives of each of the Corps districts that manage the waterway, from the Mobile Engineer District that directs waterway maintenance in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle, to the New Orleans Engineer District that oversees Louisiana, to the Galveston Engineer District that directs Corps activities along the GIWW in Texas.

For the Mobile District, the big news is the fact that Congress has appropriated all the federal funding required to deepen and broaden the Mobile Harbor, which intersects the GIWW. For the Galveston District, work continues to plan and prepare for new structures where the Brazos and Colorado rivers intersect the GIWW. In the New Orleans District, attention is focused on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lock, which will close for 60 days on August 31 for emergency guidewall repair work.

The lock at IHNC has developed sinkholes around the lock walls, likely due to water intruding through the joints in the concrete. The district plans to identify the source of the sinkholes and address all concrete concerns during the closure.

“The biggest challenges we’re having is the 100-year-old concrete is degrading, and we’re having a lot of challenges with infiltration,” said Victor Landry, the Corps’ operations project manager for the GIWW. “The lock structure itself is not moving, but all the earthen fill around it is, and we’re having a lot of material move through these failed concrete joints.”

The lock is one of the busiest in the nation, and one of the oldest. Those two factors, plus enormous pressure from the often stubbornly high Mississippi River, have taken their toll on the structure.

“She’s served us well, but she’s tired and in need of some TLC,” he said.

During the closure, which will encompass September and October, tows traversing the GIWW will have to take the Chandeleur Sound-GIWW Alternate Route or the much longer route using the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The Corps, U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are partnering to dredge, survey and mark the alternate route, which uses the east-facing Baptiste Collette and the Chandeleur Sound between the Mississippi River and Gulfport, Miss. Information on the alternate route is available on a GICA-hosted Facebook page titled Chandeleur Sound-GIWW Alternate Route 2020 Operations and in Coast Guard MSIBs.

Other sessions of the GICA Seminar included remarks from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas; a U.S. Coast Guard Sector commanders’ panel discussion and the always popular towboat operators’ panel.

GIWW stakeholders may already mark their calendars for next year’s GICA Seminar, which will be held at the Westin Hotel New Orleans, located at the foot of Canal Street, August 4–6, 2021.

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