Last Stop NOLA: MRC Concludes Annual High-Water Inspection In New Orleans
The Mississippi River Commission (MRC) concluded its yearly high-water inspection trip in the Big Easy March 31, with the mv. Mississippi docking at the New Orleans Engineer District’s headquarters in Uptown New Orleans.
After introductory remarks from members of the commission, Col. Cullin Jones, the 65th commander of the New Orleans District, reflected on his experience since assuming command in September 2022.
“I can tell you,” Jones said, “it has been a wild ride over the last seven months.”
In his first months on the job, Jones and the New Orleans District faced a significant low water season on the Mississippi River, much like fellow districts in the Mississippi Valley Division. Most recently, the district had to enact its Phase I flood fight when the Mississippi River reached 11 feet at the Carrollton gage in New Orleans. The river there has crested at about 13 feet, with the National Weather Service forecasting a slow fall through the next couple of weeks.
“While we know we’re still very early in the high-water season, I think I can speak on behalf of the Corps and our levee district partners that we would not be disappointed if the forecast held and we did not enter into a Phase II flood fight, when we see the Carrollton gage get to 15 feet,” Jones said.
Another focal point for the district is continuing work to bring a draft of 50 feet to the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. So far, the 50-foot channel extends to Mississippi River Mile 175, with work ongoing at the crossings up to Baton Rouge. Jones said the Corps is partnering with the U.S. Coast Guard to set aids to navigation, such as range lights, and ensure the proper channel alignment. The end result, he said, will be an incredible return on investment.
“At the end of the day, it means that we’re going to make sure the Mississippi River remains competitive in the global economy,” Jones said. “Once we’re able to get it all the way up to 50 feet to the Port of Baton Rouge, we’re going to see a return on investment of seven dollars for every dollar spent in delivery and maintenance.”
And while the New Orleans District continues to advance the 50-foot channel project, Jones said his team also continues to wrestle with the river in terms of new and unplanned outlets and hard-to-manage sedimentation.
One such crevasse is “Neptune Pass,” which is located about 25 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, on the east bank of the river. The outlet has widened from 150 feet in 2016 to around 850 feet today, with an estimated 16 percent of the river’s flow escaping through Neptune Pass. The outlet saw rapid growth during the high-water season of 2019. Last year, the Corps placed 90,000 tons of stone along the channel in an attempt to stop it from getting any bigger. Modeling studies will indicate how best to proceed, Jones said.
“The goal there, at the end of the day, will enable us to create a sustainable, what I’m calling, control structure, so we can return that location back to the 2019 conditions,” Jones said. “When I say ‘control,’ we’re not going to close off the path. We’re going to be able to get the flows to allow for traffic to continue to move through, but at the same time, prevent any unacceptable hazards to navigation on the Mississippi.”
Jones said one of his team’s most exciting current projects is the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study, a wide-ranging effort that will look at the condition, operation and maintenance of the lower half of the river. The study was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 2020.
“We have an opportunity here across five years, utilizing $25 million, to re-evaluate how we operate and maintain and execute operations on the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau all the way to the Gulf of Mexico,” Jones said.
The lower river already has a good story to tell, Jones said, with close to 53,000 acres (or 82.7 square miles) created through the beneficial use of dredged material since 1976.
Bayou Sorrel Lock
In the public comments portion of the meeting, Renee Lapeyrolerie, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development’s Office of Multimodal Commerce, asked the MRC and the Corps to re-evaluate the economic merit and feasibility of replacing Bayou Sorrel Lock on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway’s (GIWW) alternate route between Morgan City, La., and Port Allen, near Baton Rouge.
While most east-west traffic on the GIWW enters or exits the Mississippi River below New Orleans at Algiers Lock, an alternate route heads north at Morgan City and sends barge traffic through Bayou Sorrel Lock and, ultimately, Port Allen Lock on the Mississippi River. Bayou Sorrel Lock measures only 56 feet wide by 797 feet long, making it one of the smallest locks in the entire inland waterway system. Besides its navigation role, Bayou Sorrel Lock also serves as part of the eastern levee system in the Atchafalaya Basin, which is, in turn, part of the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project. Still, the top of the lock chamber wall at Bayou Sorrel Lock is eight feet below the project flood design height, according to the Corps.
While navigation stakeholders have long called for a replacement of Bayou Sorrel Lock, a 2013 post-authorization change study by the Corps determined that replacement was not economically feasible.
Lapeyrolerie asked Corps officials to re-examine the 2013 study using updated lock data and future traffic projections.
“The Port Allen-Morgan City alternate route through Bayou Sorrel Lock constitutes one of the most sensitive and strategic in our nation’s inland maritime transportation system,” she said. “The importance of the Bayou Sorrel Lock was highlighted [in 2021] after Hurricane Ida severed access to the Mississippi River via the Algiers Canal for over 60 days.”
In that time period, the majority of inland towboats in the area had to move barges through the alternate route in order to access the Mississippi River. Updated lock data, Lapeyrolerie argued, would paint a much different picture regarding the strategic nature of Bayou Sorrel Lock.
“The lock plays a critical role in maritime transportation resiliency in one of the nation’s most vulnerable, hurricane-prone regions,” she said. “It’s not a matter of if but when another major storm impacts south Louisiana, seriously disrupting the more vulnerable and exposed route through Algiers Canal, requiring the Bayou Sorrel Lock to, once again, facilitate primary access to the Mississippi River post-storm.”
A strong delegation from the Mississippi River ship pilots associations urged the Corps to take steps to improve and protect the ship channel. Capt. Jason Ledet with the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamboat Pilots Association called on the Corps to conduct standardized, regular surveys of the entire length of the ship channel. When surveys are done, Ledet said, it takes a protracted effort to extract the data and make it usable for river pilots. Ledet said the stakes are high. Ledet said one study indicated a one-day closure due to a grounding in the channel would cost almost $600 million. A two-day closure would cost $1.2 billion, and a five-day closure would cost almost $3 billion.
“Do we really want to wait for an Ever Given situation to the tune of almost $2 billion?” he asked.
Capt. Michael Miller, president of the Associated Branch Pilots, called on the Corps to take a closer look at shoaling within Pilottown Anchorage, which he said presently prevents his pilots from even anchoring ships there.
Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, laid out his concerns that flow loss through diversions, crevasses and other breaks in the riverbank below New Orleans could eventually threaten the stability of the river itself, both navigation on the river and access to fresh water. Many of the breaks in the bank, Duffy said, are on the east bank.
“The east side of the river below Baton Rouge is collapsing,” Duffy said.
Loss of flow reduces the ability of the river to self-scour, which is a hallmark of the Mississippi River & Tributaries approach to flood control. In high water, those breaks send more flow outward, but in low flow, those breaks can send sea water into the river as well.
Like Ledet and Miller, Duffy said the stakes are high, not just for Louisiana and the nation, but for the world that depends on agriculture exported from the Mississippi Valley.
“It’s a big river that has a lot of big challenges,” Duffy said. “We really are dependent on our government agencies. … What we do with this river is incredibly important to us.”
Gordon Dove, the president of Terrebonne Parish, discussed the 98 miles of levees, locks and floodgates Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes have built as part of the planned Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system. The Corps-built system will add to and build on what the parishes have already built.
Dove said the region is already seeing the benefits of what’s in place, with an average height of 12 feet across the system. That will grow to 21 feet with the Corps-built levees. In the meantime, Dove asked for the Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take what’s already in place into consideration when formulating storm surge modeling.
Several stakeholders spoke out against a project by Air Products that proposes building a carbon capture and sequestration facility in Lake Maurepas, a lake that connects to the western part of Lake Pontchartrain. The project would involve pipelines that would cut through wetlands and under the lake, transporting CO2 to the Air Products facility.
A highlight of many public statements was the personal messages of thanks and appreciation and the well-wishes for Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division and president of the MRC. The public meeting aboard the mv. Mississippi was the last such event for Holland, who will soon retire after 33 years of service in the U.S. Army. Holland has led the MRC and the Mississippi Valley Division since 2020. Prior to that, Holland commanded the South Atlantic Engineer Division.
“I’ve gotten to do some amazing things during my 33 years in the Army,” Holland said. “Few experiences compare to serving as the president of the Mississippi River Commission and presiding over public hearings on board the mv. Mississippi. This was my last inspection trip on the river, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘last lap.’ Thank you to everyone who serves in support of the MRC’s important mission. Further thanks to our partners and stakeholders who participate in this rare demonstration of ‘democracy in action.’”
The 2023 high water tour was the first trip for new commission member Robert Miller, whom President Joe Biden appointed to the MRC late last year. Miller is a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and assistant director of the Watershed Flood Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Miller replaces Norma Jean Mattei, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Orleans, whose term on the commission had ended.