Rivers rise and rivers fall, and so do the fortunes of the people whose job it is to keep commercially important waterways open.
One example: Port of Morgan City Executive Director Raymond “Mac” Wade learned recently that the Carolina, a Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. dredge, won’t be ready to work here under a Corps of Engineers contract in February or March as anticipated. Instead, the dredging will have to wait until May.
Then came the blockbuster: Also this week, Congress approved another nearly $19 million for operation and maintenance “for the Atchafalaya River & Bayous Chene, Boeuf, and Black,” according to a press release from U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Lafayette and St. Mary’s congressman. The waterways are in the purview of the Port of Morgan City.
The extra money offers at least a chance to open local waterways to long-hoped-for import-export vessels, with financial spinoffs for local businesses in the parish’s struggling economy.
“We’re going to have a channel,” Wade said.
The port board heard Jan. 11 that its operation and maintenance appropriation in outgoing President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is about $4.4 million, “which is really nothing,” Wade said. “I can’t even get a dredge in there with that.”
For comparison, the Corps of Engineers contract that was to bring the Carolina in to dredge below Crewboat Cut is for $16 million.
But Charles Brittingham, who represents the port’s interests in Washington, told the board at the Jan. 11 meeting that more than half a billion in supplemental funding was still to be doled out and that the Port of Morgan City had a chance to get some of it.
“I was down in the dumps,” Wade said. “He said it wasn’t over yet. We weren’t sure we would get a cent.”
Then came word that the Army Corps of Engineers’ work plan approved by Congress contains the nearly $19 million in additional funding, raising the total Port of Morgan City appropriation for operation and maintenance to about $22.9 million.
The port may have benefitted from Higgins’ status as a loyal Trump supporter.
The Port of Morgan City is at the eastern end of Higgins’ 3rd Congressional District. At the western edge of the 3rd District, the Calcasieu River and Pass is set to receive more than $44 million.
However it happened, the extra money made Wade a happy man.
The prospects for bringing in larger vessels depend on a long stretch divided into two parts: one from Crewboat Cut, about 8 miles south of Morgan City, to Eugene Island, and one from Eugene Island to the sea buoy.
South of Eugene Island, in the bar channel, an experimental dredge built and operated by Brice Civil Constructors of Alaska is having some success. The dredge is designed to remove the sticky fluff mud that fouls vessel propulsion systems in ports all over the world.
The problem in the Crewboat Cut section is sand, which is always a challenge and has been made worse by repeated high-water events over the last five years.
The Carolina was to dredge the Crewboat Cut-Eugene Island stretch. Instead, the Great Lakes dredge Illinois will do the contract work, but it won’t be available until May, Wade said.
And that’s not so bad, Wade believes. By then, there will be less risk that high water will bring more sand in behind a completed dredging operation.
The work plan funding approved this week will go to the Corps, not the port. But Wade is confident the Corps will go along with additional dredging in the Crewboat Cut stretch.
That, plus the Brice dredging farther south, offers the hope that the channel can be widened and deepened to its authorized dimensions of 400 feet by 20 feet.
The material dredged from the Crewboat Cut dredging won’t just be dumped back in the water somewhere else, Wade said. It will be used to build new land along the waterway.
“I’m very optimistic now …,” Wade said. “The problem has always been up above [the bar channel] where the sand is at. I feel like we’re going to have a channel by late summer or early fall.”