Locks and Dams

High Water Closes Bayou Sorrel Lock, Backs Up Harvey, Algiers

Over the last 30 days, the communities along Bayou Sorrel and the Port Allen Alternate Route of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) have seen an astounding amount of rainfall on that narrow strip of land, bounded on one side by the Mississippi River levee and on the other by the Morganza Floodway’s eastern levee.

In just the past month, the entire area has seen in excess of 15 inches of rain, with large pockets receiving more than 20 inches of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. Extend that to the past 60 days, and much of the same area has received in excess of 30 inches of rain.

That huge amount of rain—with almost nowhere to drain—has sent water levels in Bayou Sorrel, and the entire Alternate Route above Bayou Sorrel Lock, shooting up. They’ve remained high for much of the months of April and May.

Communities along the alternate route, from Plaquemine at the upper end to Bayou Sorrel in the middle and Bayou Pigeon near Bayou Sorrel Lock, have all seen the waterway rise dangerously high, threatening many homes and businesses.

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At the lower end of the waterway, near the community of Bayou Pigeon, Iberville Parish officials had placed an “AquaDam”—a rubber tube filled with water—along Highway 75 in mid-May to help contain the swollen bayou. On May 21, though, flood waters from Bayou Sorrel breached the AquaDam, sending a two-foot wall of water over the highway and toward the community’s homes and businesses.

“Once the water got too high, it just rolled the AquaDam down the road,” said Brennan Templet, a third-generation member of the Businelle Towing team who spent much of the day May 21 fighting floodwaters alongside his neighbors. Businelle Towing has two towboats that assist tows through Port Allen and Bayou Sorrel locks. “The people of Bayou Pigeon and Bayou Sorrel came together and, with the state, put concrete barriers along the bayou. That stopped it, along with sandbags.”

Those concrete barriers, lined with sandbags, re-established the line between the bayou and the community, though parish officials still called on residents at the lower end of the parish to evacuate the area.

Nowhere To Go

Drainage along Bayou Sorrel and within the lower end of Iberville Parish is complicated. In the first place, the boundaries of the Morganza Spillway levee on the west side and the Mississippi River levee on the east side restrict where rainwater can drain. The whole watershed, in essence, drains through Bayou Sorrel Lock and a tiny, silted-in loop that bypasses the lock.

Complicating the matter is this: When the land-side gage at Bayou Sorrel Lock (the upper end of the lock) goes above 6.9 feet, the lock closes to navigation. And with water levels in the entire Atchafalaya Basin, which includes the Morganza Spillway, higher than the water on the land side of Bayou Sorrel Lock, the New Orleans Engineer District isn’t even able to place the lock in “open pass” mode to allow water to drain.

Speaking on May 24, Ted Verret, who owns and operates Verret Shipyard in Plaquemine, said portions of his shipyard, which lies on the east bank of the waterway, still had as much as 4 to 4-1/2 feet of water on it.

“It’s draining about an inch a day,” he said. “Since it crested yesterday, it’s dropped about 2 inches.”

Verret and Templet both estimated it could be as much as two more weeks before the land side gage at Bayou Sorrel Lock would drop below 6.9 feet.

Navigation Impact

Besides the community impacts of the high water on Bayou Sorrel and the GIWW Alternate Route, the closure of the waterway to navigation is having a longstanding impact on barge traffic traveling through South Louisiana on the GIWW.

Bayou Sorrel Lock has spent more days closed than open the past two months, with the lock closed due to high water April 16–27, May 12–17, and May 17 to present. It was open briefly May 17 from 6:30 a.m. to 9:05 p.m. before water went back above 6.9 feet.

With Bayou Sorrel and Port Allen locks out of service, tows must use either Harvey Lock or Algiers Lock in New Orleans to move between the GIWW and the Mississippi River. For a good portion of May, Harvey was also unavailable, which drove the queue at Algiers above 100.

As of press time May 27, the total queue was 119, with 76 vessels waiting to use Algiers Lock and 43 on turn at Harvey. According to the New Orleans District’s lock status webpage, the wait time at Algiers was over three days.

Residents in Iberville Parish and maritime industry leaders who operate along the Alternate Route agree that something needs to be done to address flooding and frequent navigation restrictions along Bayou Sorrel.

Iberville Parish Councilman Pete Kelley told the Plaquemine Post South newspaper the navigation problem has to be tackled.

“The Mississippi River doesn’t pass in Houston, and you’ve got to go through the Intracoastal to get to Houston,” Kelley said, according to the Post South. “What’s going to have to happen is that the tugboat industry is going to have to be involved to get this fixed. That’s the only way it will happen.”

The Corps has long studied replacing or augmenting the current lock, yet determined in a September 2013 post authorization change study that the project was not economically feasible, based on a lower benefit-cost ratio. Ricky Boyett, chief of public affairs for the New Orleans District, said the Corps has asked to reassess the feasibility of the project.

“USACE has submitted a request to conduct an updated analysis evaluating lock delays over the last three years,” Boyett said. “This analysis would provide updated insight regarding the benefits and economic viability of the project. I do not have a timeline at this time.”

Many residents, including Templet, say the bayou itself needs to be dredged so it can handle more runoff.

“My grandma said it’s been 50 years since they dredged it,” Templet said.

Verret said he thinks the solution has to include pumping the water out.

“Eventually, a pumping station will have to be put in this waterway to pump the water into the spillway,” Verret said. “There’s just no way around it.”

Regardless of the solution, Verret said what the community around Bayou Sorrel is facing is more than just a local problem, due to the cargoes that move through the waterway.

“It’s not just an Iberville Parish problem,” Verret said. “It’s a United States problem.”