A Deeper Mississippi River on The Horizon

Barges on Mississippi River

Published May 14, 2015 9:20 PM by Kathryn Stone

The U.S. government is taking steps to allow for larger post-Panamex sized vessels along the lower Mississippi River as the date for the opening of the expanded Panama Canal draws closer. 

On Wednesday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its plans to draft a supplemental environmental impact report looking into expanding an area of the Mississippi River Ship Canal between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico. The plan will deepen the section section of the river from 45 feet up to a maximum of 50 feet in order to accommodate larger vessels destined for the Panama Canal.  The Army Corp expressed interest in the project by stating that, “there may be economic justification in expanding port projects to accommodate post-Panamax vessels.”

The plan has been under consideration since the 1980s, when an environmental impact study originally recommended deepening the navigational channel between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico to a depth 55 feet. However, with the completion of the Panama Canal set for next year, the government is again focusing attention on assuring Mississippi River ports can accommodate these vessels. In December 2014 House Majority Whip Steve Scalise emphasized ‘critical nature’ of deepening the river in order to keep the United States as trade leader both domestically and internationally. 

Shipments on the Mississippi River are made up largely of grain supplies heading from the U.S. heartland to foreign markets. The World Trade Center of New Orleans and groups representing maritime interests released a report in December which showed that a group of five ports in Louisiana handle around 75% of the U.S.’s grain exports. China in particular is a huge importer of U.S. rice as rice prices in China are held high to protect domestic farmers.  According to the Army Corp of Engineers “The ports located along the lower Mississippi River, being the dominant ports for the export of grains from the U.S., will likely play a key role in meeting these future needs if they are ready with a post-Panamax sized channel.”

Fortune Magazine released an article earlier this month detailing the river’s proposed expansion in which it highlighted strong economic benefits of commerce down the river.  The article noted that barge shipping down the Mississippi is extremely costs effective, with river shipments costing about half the amount as transportation by train. Additionally, since the cargos are largely carried by river currents and don’t require more than a few towboats, they are more environmentally friendly than other alternatives. 

For the new report the Army Corps of Engineers will look at trades figures and population trends to identify the best expansion depth for the project between the current 45 feet and high-estimate of 50 feet. 

The Army Corps will be holding three public scoping meetings between May 26 and 28 in Belle Chasse and New Orleans.