BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A four-year project to deepen the Mississippi River by five feet could begin as early as October of 2019, according to Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) Commissioner Mike Strain.
“It means better prices for our farmers, tremendous growth in the economy, further private investment in our export facilities,” Strain said. “It is a huge economic growth for the area.”
A shipper can load an additional $1 million of cargo on a vessel for every foot of depth, according to Strain and other maritime experts. Right now, the Mississippi River is 45 feet deep.
“Fifty feet is kind of a magical draft,” said Big River Coalition Executive Director Sean Duffy. “It matches what other U.S. ports have been able to do. There are very few deeper than 50 and it catches us up with some of the east coast ports.”
Dredging away five feet will allow larger ships to tow more cargo through the channel. Right now, shippers cannot load some newer, larger boats to capacity because they might drag bottom.
The Panama Canal and Suez Canal have both been deepened, meaning some massive ships that leave those harbors cannot reach Baton Rouge because the Mississippi is too shallow.
Strain says each ship that docks in Baton Rouge creates about $1 million in economic impact, and deepening the river could allow another 200 ships to dock at the port each year.
“We have the product. We have the demand. We have to grow the facilities,” Strain said. “None of the other major ports in the United States have the Mississippi River ready to deliver this massive amount of product to our door.”
Strain says it would cost the state around $40 million over four years to bring home the nearly $200 million in federal match dollars the project requires. Once the project is completed, the federal government will pay to maintain the river at 50 feet each year.
The costs could be covered by the capital outlay budget or by DOTD’s budget, among other funding mechanisms.
In 2014, the federal government began agreeing to maintain 50-foot channels, which saves state governments millions of dollars each year. State lawmakers have been talking about deepening the river for almost 40 years, but it did not become economically viable until the federal government changed its policy to cover maintenance.
The Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the plan in August, giving the project a massive boost in momentum that made an October 2019 start more likely.
“If not 2019, we think at least 2020,” Duffy said. “We should, if we stay on track, be the first port in the Gulf at 50 feet. That’s a huge competitive advantage.”
The dredged sediment will be relocated to Louisiana’s coast to create as much as 1,700 acres of new wetlands.