Controlling Draft On Lower Mississippi Increased To 50 Feet Through New Orleans

For the first time in history, the controlling depth for the first 125 river miles of the Mississippi River Ship Channel has been set at 50 feet. The milestone comes less than two years after the New Orleans Engineer District began work on deepening the river from its previously authorized depth of 47 feet to 50 feet and about 10 years after efforts began to secure congressional authorization and funding for the project.

“The controlling maximum freshwater draft for the Mississippi River Ship Channel from the jetty end of Southwest Pass to the upriver limit of the Port of New Orleans is now set at 50 feet for the first time ever, in accordance with congressional authorization,” said Big River Coalition Executive Director Sean Duffy.. “The maximum draft decreases to 49 from the Port of New Orleans to Mile 175 above Head of Passes at Smoke Bend until additional adjustments are made.”

Full completion of the deepening project will eventually bring a 50-foot channel all the way to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.

The first stretch of the river to reach a 50-foot controlling depth was from the jetties up to Pilottown. The Associated Branch Pilots of the Port of New Orleans (the Bar Pilots), which pilot ships between the Gulf and Pilottown, increased their maximum freshwater draft to 50 feet on March 16.

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The Crescent River Port Pilots Association, whose pilots steer ships between Pilottown and the Port of New Orleans, increased its maximum recommended draft to 50 feet on July 20. The river in that stretch has been largely above 50 feet for quite some time, but difficulty surveying pipelines crossing the river near Venice—and certifying the safe navigational depth over them—took time. 

According to the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA), the maximum draft on the river is 49 feet from Mile 88 to Mile 175. The draft is 47 feet from there up to Mile 180, and then NOBRA’s recommended controlling draft is 45 feet up to Mile 233.8.

Duffy expects the maximum controlling draft recommendation on the ship channel to reach 50 feet all the way to Smoke Bend by the end of the year. Beyond Smoke Bend, deepening efforts will be complicated by a variety of factors and could take two to three years to accomplish.