GICA Seminar Focuses On Infrastructure
Day 1 of the annual seminar of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), held in New Orleans July 27-28, was infrastructure rich, with reports from Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., lock masters from structures in Louisiana and Texas and district-level representatives from the Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston Engineer Districts.
Three of the projects discussed—the Brazos River Floodgates, Bayou Sorrel Lock and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock (IHNC)—exist within a now-but-not-yet reality, with the current structures obsolete yet critical to the marine transportation system and their replacements years, if not decades, away.
Of those three Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) projects, the Brazos River Floodgates is the closest to construction, with a plan already in place to replace the two 75- by 750-foot-long floodgates on the east and west side of the Brazos River near Freeport, Texas, with 125-foot-wide sector gates on the east side and a 125-foot-wide channel—and no gate—on the west side.
Zea said the Brazos replacement project likely would have received funding in the fiscal year 2024 House appropriations bill, but inflation-related cost overruns forced funds to other projects, like Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River.
“This is the reason why the GIWW Brazos project was unable to begin,” Zea said. “At the start of the year, we did not know Chickamauga Lock was going to need $237 million. It was supposed to be done and completed, but it took away all the funding for Brazos.”
Zea and Col. Rhett Blackmon, commander of the Galveston District, who spoke later in the day, both discussed how the Corps is seeking to make progress on the project even in today’s difficult funding climate. While the Corps initially planned to execute the project in a single contract, the district is now exploring the possibility of splitting the project into east and west components.
With that strategy, the Corps would execute work on the west side of the river first, at an estimated cost of about $80 million. The Corps would then focus on the east side as additional funding becomes available.
In the meantime, though, lock and vessel operators must work with what they have, and the project as it exists is a challenge.
Speaking to Brazos River Floodgates lockmaster Jesse Deshotels, GICA President Paul Dittman asked what message he would share with operators transiting Brazos if he had the chance.
“And yours is the one I refer to as the barge magnet,” Dittman said, “so I’d be very interested in what you’d have to say.”
Deshotels took a deep breath before answering.
“Our facility is very unique,” he said. “They have to make a 60-degree turn out in the middle of the river when they transit either from east to west or west to east.”
Deshotels then turned to his colleague at the nearby Colorado Locks, Robert George, who used to work at Brazos. George noted that, at one time, Brazos was seeing upwards of 50 or 60 chargeable accidents per year, due in large part to the current.
“What I used to tell [captains] is that I have a tremendous respect for what they do, because Brazos is a hard place to make even on a good day,” said George, who later added, “I would also tell them that I have a tremendous respect for all the passages they make where they don’t have accidents, because there are close calls on those.”
The Corps also plans to address the aging Colorado Locks after the Brazos project. The Colorado Locks project will remove riverside gates, keep the canal-side gates and create a wider and longer forebay on either side of the river.
Bayou Sorrel Lock, which lies along the GIWW alternate route between Port Allen, La., and Morgan City, La., has long been a sore subject with the maritime industry due to how the benefit-cost ratio was calculated for its long-delayed replacement. Measuring 56 feet by 797 feet, Bayou Sorrel is one of the smallest locks in the system. The lock serves a dual role both as a branch of the GIWW and as a flood control measure, even though its wall is about 8 feet below the project flood design, according to the Corps.
Due to its small size, Bayou Sorrel becomes a chokepoint for commercial navigation.
Mariners can expect intermittent delays at Bayou Sorrel due to guidewall construction through about April 2024.
The good news for Bayou Sorrel, according to both Zea and Col. Cullen Jones, commander of the New Orleans District, is that Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, recently directed that the Corps will treat its reassessment of the lock replacement feasibility as a new investment decision rather than a new start.
“That opened the door for Congressman Garrett Graves to submit an earmark to be included in the House appropriations bill for $800,000, which is what the study needs this fiscal year,” Zea said.
While the funding for Bayou Sorrel was not in the Senate bill, Zea expects the project to make it in the final version after the conference process.
A new Bayou Sorrel Lock, according to the Corps’ 2003 feasibility report, would be 75 feet wide by 1,200 feet long.
The oldest of the locks discussed, IHNC Lock, opened to navigation in 1923, a full century ago. And while it wasn’t too long ago that IHNC underwent an extended closure for new gates and machinery, the lock is still 50 years past its design life, and the wear and tear of daily lockages is taking a toll.
“We’re seeing a lot of accidents, and I can’t emphasize that enough,” said lockmaster Richard McKenzie. “If anyone can imagine a piece of steel an inch and a half thick, and these boats are hitting it and bending it and tearing it up. It’s a problem.”
McKenzie said those impacts—on the chamber, the gates and the guidewalls—are becoming even more frequent as vessels bring five-packs through the lock.
“The manner they come in is a little aggressive,” McKenzie said. “Sometimes you’ll see a carefree attitude, and you can’t have that with an older lock. It’s a hundred years old. It’s falling apart. … At some point, industry is going to have to do something to help us, because they’re going to tear it up. It’s not a matter of if but when.”
Brad Inman, chief for the New Orleans District’s projects and restoration branch, said the district is working toward completing the supplemental environmental impact study and, eventually, a director’s report for the IHNC Lock Replacement Project, but with the project currently enjoined due to a lawsuit, it’s going to take time—a lot of it.
The current target for completing the study, achieve a director’s report and be able to go back before a federal judge is February 2025. Assuming a favorable decision by the judge, the project would then need funding, which according to 2019 figures was set at $1.22 billion. And that was before the current inflationary environment.
“The biggest question in my opinion is funding,” Inman said. “Do you get funding in large buckets up front or will they be strung out over time? Certainly that is a potential problem.”