MVTTC Holds 41st Annual Conference In New Orleans

Stakeholders, operators and waterway managers connected to the Mississippi River met in New Orleans February 16, ahead of the city’s busiest Carnival weekend, for the 41st annual conference of the Mississippi Valley Trade & Transport Council (MVTTC).

The year that’s passed since the last MVTTC conference has been a critical one for cargoes connected to the Mississippi Valley and for mariners who operate on the inland waterways, said Jeff Carman, senior sales director for American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) and chair of MVTTC.

“If you look at where we were 12 months ago, a lot of things have changed,” Carman said. “Russia invaded Ukraine. We’ve seen the price of oil go from $78 a barrel to $123 a barrel and now back to around $80.”

Over the past year, the API 2, the price index for coal, went from $174 to $400 and back down to $136 at the time of the conference, Carman said.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“We’ve averted a potential railroad strike,” he said. “We’ve seen that COVID is kind of an afterthought now. It’s still here, but it no longer has the impact on our lives like it did for the past 24 to 30 months. We’ve seen interest rates nearly double. We’ve seen inflation rates of 9.1 percent. Hopefully that’s the top. We’ve seen the world population reach 8 billion. We’ve also had historic low water on the Mississippi River. And finally, now we have divided government with the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives. All of this occurred in the last 12 months.

“That’s a lot,” Carman concluded. “Everybody in every industry has had to adapt and change.”

What followed in the MVTTC’s one-day conference was a full day of panelists and speakers unpacking the past year, along with a look ahead.

Low Water Focus

Capt. Kelly Denning, captain of the Port of New Orleans and commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, looked at what the past year meant for the U.S. Coast Guard. Denning opened by looking at the raw data for Sector New Orleans over the past year.

“It was a busy year,” she said. “We conducted over 1,500 domestic vessel inspections, 600 towing vessel inspections, 700 shoreside facility inspections, 800 container examinations, 800 marine casualty investigations. We tracked over 105,000 vessel movements, and we coordinated 55 river closures to ensure the safe navigation along the gateway here to the heartland. We serviced over 650 aids to navigation across 2,000 miles of waterway. We were able to award $4.7 million of port security grants this year, which supported 85 percent of our port security projects.”

There were 2,573 boardings, 44 security zones and six security operations over the past year, Denning said, including Mardi Gras parade overflights.

“Of course, it’s no surprise to anybody in this room that the largest impact we had to the Mississippi River this past year was low water,” Denning said. “We had below-normal rain throughout the majority of the Mississippi Valley over the past year, which lasted about six to seven months. That caused major drought conditions in some areas, and we still have some impacts that we’re feeling today.”

That low water, similar to conditions in 2012 and 1988, had tremendous impacts on the navigation industry, Denning said, and was contrary to what had actually become the norm over the past decade—high water.

“It was just a good reminder that the river flows both ways,” she said.

Denning noted groundings, project delays and cancellations and river closures totaling more than 800 hours. Groundings on the lower river were generally within the normal range for Sector New Orleans, Denning said, but it was a different story for Sector Upper Mississippi and Sector Lower Mississippi.

“Needless to say, this had a significant impact, not only on our local economy, but globally as well,” Denning said. “Without the partnerships we have forged over the years, we would not have been able to get through the low water.”

Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, explained part of how the historic low water on the Mississippi River came about, with the river’s tributary regions all experiencing drought conditions. The Missouri has been trending lower the past few years, Graschel said. However, the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys both experienced drought conditions last year, and that had a big impact on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mark Wright, a state representative for Louisiana’s District 77 and a vice president of The American Waterways Operators (AWO), said one of the big stories to come out of the near-yearlong low water on the Mississippi River was how federal agencies and commercial operators worked together to maintain navigation.

“I think that’s a really good story, quite frankly,” Wright said.

The challenges facing the inland maritime industry in 2022 were many.

“There’s, like, 3,000 barges halted by October, which is a tremendous amount, and I think people outside [the industry] don’t always appreciate how much is carried in one barge,” Wright said. “There’s that famous graphic that groups use about how a 15-barge tow is equivalent to a thousand 18-wheelers. So you multiply that and think about what that looks like.”

That limiting of barge traffic had a direct impact on barge rates, Wright said, with rates at $105 on October 11, up from close to $50 toward the end of September and less than $29 in 2021.

Also contributing to that are workforce issues and steel prices, Wright said, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“That has had a big effect on things, not to mention all the dollars printed up over the years and the inflation that had worked its way into the system, and it really did kind of feel like a perfect storm,” he said.

And yet, despite all that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and industry were able to work together to keep cargoes moving, Wright said.

Within the New Orleans Engineer District, low water brought its own challenges, including a wedge of sea water traveling up from the Gulf that required construction of a “salt water wedge” below Belle Chasse in order to protect the fresh water supply of several river communities. Michelle Kornick with the New Orleans District offered a report on dredging operations on the river and low-water issues.

Capt. Michael Miller, president of the Associated Branch Pilots, then discussed issues related to breaks in the riverbank extending from New Orleans down to the mouth of the river. Miller compared those breaks to a leaky garden hose. The more leaks a hose has, the less water will actually make it out the end, Miller explained.

“That’s what it’s doing at some points in the river,” he said.

That includes natural breaks and outlets of the river, but it also includes intentional breaks like at West Bay and the planned Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion. Breaks in the river not only slow down the flow, they also can destabilize the bank, which Miller said pilots are seeing on the east bank of Southwest Pass.

Miller said he’s proud of how industry and the Corps work together on dredging and construction projects. Still, he said impacts on navigation and the stability of the river must be taken into consideration as the Corps and the state of Louisiana plan for future dredging and diversions.

Future Focus

The MVTTC conference featured David Cummins, president and CEO of Blue Sky Maritime Coalition, and David Walker, vice president of the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), offering a glimpse of what the future of inland commercial navigation might look like in terms of vessel design and propulsion.

Cummins called the group he represents a “coalition of the willing” made up of operators and energy suppliers, policy groups and manufacturers and everyone in between. Cummins said his group doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all mentality with regard to decarbonization. Instead, the group emphasizes the vision and collaborates on how to realize that goal by 2050.

“You start with that vision and work backwards,” he said.

Cummins said it’s important to note that his organization doesn’t try to force consensus. Rather, it emphasizes innovation and collaboration because sometimes two opposing ideas lead to the discovery of a third—and better—way.

“Innovation is disruptive,” he said. “Innovation challenges the status quo.”

Walker then discussed the Gulf of Mexico Green Shipping Corridor that ABS is helping develop in the Gulf Coast region and the Lower Mississippi River. The collaborative and systems-focused project seeks to implement a diverse pathway for operators in a region to achieve decarbonization over time.

The conference later focused on the political and economic picture as it relates to the Mississippi Valley, along with cargoes and commodities like agricultural products and coal.