Newbeat: Dredge It, or They Won’t Come

The federal government has been cutting its budgets left and right, but one potential reduction in particular had a group in South Louisiana concerned about the future of the Mississippi River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ budget for river dredging faced a $45 million cut at the start of 2012, and this rang alarms from the Big River Coalition, a group representing maritime interests.

“We’re very concerned that because of this policy we won’t have a full channel in the Mississippi River,” says Sean Duffy, director of the coalition.

A massive amount of silt tumbles down the Mississippi, and each year the corps dredges the river to ensure deep-draft, ocean-going cargo vessels and tankers can navigate it. Should silt be allowed to build up, however, draft restrictions would curtail the size of ships using the river, and a study sponsored by the Big River Coalition warns that would trigger significant cuts in exports, imports, local jobs and tax revenues. The report, conducted by Louisiana economist Tim Ryan, calculated that a reduction in ships’ drafts could cost the United States economy up to $7.2 billion in direct spending this year, with a heavy impact on agricultural exports and oil imports.  

In late January, however, the state’s congressional delegation was able to secure more funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act to make up for the potential shortfall.

“This is tremendous news not only for the Port of New Orleans and the local maritime community, but for the growers, producers and manufacturers in the 32 states that depend on the lower Mississippi River to get their goods to global markets,” says Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.

The potential crisis spurred some to look for long-term solutions to the issue. Congressman Charles Boustany of Lafayette has proposed legislation to dedicate all proceeds of the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to harbor maintenance projects. Today, some of those funds are siphoned off to other budget areas. The legislation would provide funding to maintain federal waterways at their authorized channel dimensions. Boustany says he expects action on the bill this month.

“Our challenge,” he says, “has been connecting the dredging funds to jobs and the American economy and with (the coalition’s) help we’re making that happen.”

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