At this writing, we are still waiting for the Corps of Engineers’ work plan to see how the Corps will divide up and invest the infrastructure money allocated to the Corps in the just-passed infrastructure bill. But that doesn’t mean other important work isn’t going forward.
On December 20, the Crescent River Port Pilots Association increased its maximum draft recommendation to 48 feet for a 150-mile stretch of the Lower Mississippi River, an important stage in the ongoing deepening. The Crescent River Port Pilots Association represents the pilots responsible for ocean vessel transit between Southwest Pass and New Orleans. While the depth will eventually be deepened to 50 feet to Baton Rouge, ships can begin bringing in deeper loads right now. The remaining work will probably take between two and three more years due to the complexity of the river in some sections, including submerged pipelines.
Farmers will greatly benefit from this deepening. The 256-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, La., to the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 60 percent of U.S. soybean exports, along with 59 percent of corn exports–by far the leading export region for both commodities. At several key points, soybean farmers have contributed significant amounts to the Corps for studies.
In July 2019, the United Soybean Board announced a $2 million allocation to help offset the planning, design and research costs of deepening the Lower Mississippi River from 45 feet to 50 feet. Research conducted by the Soy Transportation Coalition concluded that shipping costs for soybeans from Mississippi Gulf export terminals would decline 13 cents per bushel ($5 per metric ton) when the Lower Mississippi River is dredged to 50 feet. A deeper river allows both larger ships to be used and current ships to be loaded with more revenue-producing freight. Average vessel loads will increase from 2.4 million bushels of soybeans to 2.9 million bushels–a 21 percent increase.
The STC research estimates that farmers in the 31 evaluated states will receive an additional $461 million each year for their soybeans due to dredging the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet. While those states closer to the inland waterway system will realize the most benefit, states farther out will also benefit from the increased competition between rail and barge. With barge transportation becoming more viable for a larger percentage of the soybean-producing areas of the country, there will be a greater overlap between areas served by railroads and barge. Soybean shippers should benefit from this modal competition.
Farm groups have been consistent and effective advocates for the deepening project—indeed, for waterways infrastructure in general—in the halls of Congress. It’s hard to imagine where waterways investment would be without the “force multiplier” of farm waterways advocates adding their voices to those of our industry advocates.