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2023: The Annual Review of Waterway Events

December 15, 2023   The Waterways Journal

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The year 2023 was another busy, productive but tumultuous one for the U.S. economy and the barge industry. The effects of the ongoing El Niño-Southern Oscillation whipsawed river levels and brought dredges out to work overtime to preserve waterborne cargo flows.

Climate effects were felt all over the world, as drought curtailed commercial traffic on the Rhine River, the Panama Canal and the Amazon River as well as the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Despite challenges, heroic efforts by the Corps of Engineers, dredging contractors and barge industry partners helped keep cargoes flowing safely and with a minimum of incidents.

Link: Photo Highlights From 2023

Infrastructure work on locks and dams was sped up by funding from two important funding bills, and significant milestones were reached in the search for lower carbon emissions for our industry, even as the energy transition in the larger society hit several pause points.

Record Dredging Season

On December 14, 2022, top Corps officials honored the crews of several dredges in St. Louis for their exceptional work keeping channels open during the ongoing low water. The Corps Dredge Jadwin completed 254 days of dredging on January 11, compared with 160 days in a “normal” year. In March, Corps crews completed a record year of dredging. On January 14, the dredge Hurley ended its 273-day season in Memphis. The Corps dredge Potter finished its season February 1 after dredging material from 70 locations along 300 miles of waterway.


A rapid spring snowmelt fueled an almost-normal spring high-water season and led to a swift increase in river levels. A Phase I flood fight was briefly activated in New Orleans in March. High water forced the St. Paul Engineer District to close Upper Mississippi River Lock 4 in early April, with Lock 3 closing two days later. By April 25, most locks above Quincy, Ill., were closed because of high water, to reopen by May 15.


At the end of March, a tow breakup lodged several barges against McAlpine Lock, closing it for 17 hours until the barges could be removed.


Recognizing the new conditions, the dredging industry has responded. According to The Mike Hooks Report, an analysis of the FY22 U.S. federal dredging market released in September 2023, “New construction of Jones Act dredges, U.S. owned, built and crewed vessels have been rolling off the blocks for the past five years and will continue into the foreseeable future–at over $2.5 billion in recapitalization.” The report found that in 2022, 52 Jones Act dredging companies were awarded contracts. Strikingly, 72 percent of the winning bids came in lower than the independent government estimates.

Upper Miss Port Developments

Inland ports continued to develop, grow and seek new markets. In December 2022, regional leaders in the Upper Mississippi River region cheered the designation of the Northern Grain Belt Ports, approved by the U.S. Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center and the Navigation and Civil Works Decision Support Center. It’s the fourth such port statistical district to be organized and recognized in the area since 2019, part of a remarkable renaissance of interest in port and terminal assets in the region. The designations allow port districts to apply for federal grants and funding for infrastructure improvements.


Robert Sinkler—water resources infrastructure director for the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District (TransPORT), Tri-State Corn Belt Ports executive coordinating director and a former commander of the Rock Island Engineer District—said, “[T]his approval completes the ‘family’ of regional ports inside the Corn Belt’s lock and dam system. The effort to get all of the regional Corn Belt Ports listed and ranked on the annual U.S. Leading Ports List began in the fall of 2019.”


In July, the city of Rock Island, Ill., announced that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker had signed a bill making Rock Island the 20th official port district in the state.


A study released in September showed that the three Ports of Indiana together generate $8.7 billion annual economic impact and support 49,000 jobs statewide.

Port Developments

Also in July, Port KC received $37 million from the fiscal-year 2024 state budget to renovate its existing Missouri River port, Terminal Woodswether in the West Bottoms, and build a second port in Kansas City. Port KC, a state-created economic-development engine that operates the Port of Kansas City and facilitates other development in the Kansas City area, reopened the city’s only current public port in the West Bottoms in 2015.


Economic development leaders in McCracken County, Ky., where the Paducah-McCracken County Riverport Authority is located, applied in March for a $3.5 million federal grant that would allow the development of a new public riverport on wooded property along the Ohio River. Located at Mile 944, the 37.924-acre rural site named in the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant application, filed February 28, is part of a larger development called the Ohio River Triple Rail Site that Greater Paducah Economic Development has been trying to market for the past few years, GPED CEO/President Bruce Wilcox said. While the RAISE grant proposal was not chosen, Wilcox said economic developers still believe the site is perfect for a port and will continue seeking grant funds.

Efforts to revive the Alexander-Cairo Port in Cairo, Ill., which seemed to have stalled, got a boost when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced in October 2022 that it was releasing $3.4 million for the port revival project. The money was finally released, allowing the port district to sign a contract with HDR Engineering in March for up to $3.4 million that includes studies of soil samples, threatened/endangered species studies and any possible historic preservation issues. The studies will support environmental permit applications required for construction.


In December, public comments were sought on whether to move the planned location of a new Ohio River bridge that would replace the 1936 bridge connecting Wickliffe, Ky., and Cairo.

Port Property Purchase On Hold

Further south, the Port of South Louisiana reported an annual increase in tonnage of nearly 10 million short tons of cargo in 2022—the first increase in 6 years. The port said it moved a total of 239,257,758 short tons that year compared to a total of 229,797,480 in 2021. The port cut the ribbon on a new $11.6 million headquarters, with 30,000 square feet of space.


In January, the port announced plans to purchase Avondale Global Gateway, property that was once a major New Orleans area shipyard. The plan would require more than $400 million in public financing. In October, the purchase was put on indefinite hold in the face of persistent questions from state bond officials about the terms of the proposed sale and revenues earned by the site’s owner, terminal operator T. Parker Host, which bought the property in 2018 for $60 million and claims to have spent $100 million to turn it into a multimodal port.The bond commission must approve all government debt.Milwaukee Grain Terminal


In July, state and local officials converged on the Port of Milwaukee to celebrate the largest one-time investment at the port since the 1950s—the opening of a new grain terminal at the port to be operated by The DeLong Company Inc. The $40 million project, located on the west side of Jones Island, will be one of the first on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system to handle various agricultural commodities via truck, rail and international vessel, including dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGs), a high-nutrition animal feed supplement and byproduct of ethanol. This facility opens a brand-new ag export corridor through the St. Lawrence Seaway that can supplement the Mississippi River and open Wisconsin’s maritime and agricultural economies to new international markets. Future service at the facility may also include the export of Wisconsin-grown soybeans, corn and grain.


On November 3, the U.S. Maritime Administration announced more than $653 million in grants for 41 port improvement projects under the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP)—funded in part by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Awards announced in this round of grants included more than $172.8 million for 26 small ports to continue to improve and expand their capacity to move freight reliably and efficiently. Some of the biggest winners among inland and Gulf Coast ports were Freeport and Baytown, Texas; Fort Smith, Ark.; LaGrange, Mo.; Blencoe, Iowa; and Shawneetown, Ill. All received grants in excess of $10 million.


The year saw some significant purchases and consolidation in the marine industry, especially in dredging and marine construction services.

On January 1, Kiewit Corporation completed its acquisition of Weeks Marine Inc. and its subsidiaries Healy Tibbitts Builders Inc., McNally International Inc. and North American Aggregates for an undisclosed amount. Kiewit CEO Rick Lanoha said, “For Kiewit, we gain an exceptionally skilled workforce and the ability to add Weeks’ leading maritime engineering and construction capabilities, dynamic dredging expertise and renowned tunneling services to our portfolio of service.”

In February, specialty construction firm J.F. Brennan Company completed its acquisition of the dredging/dewatering division of Infrastructure Alternatives Inc. The purchase brought dewatering, water treatment and treatability testing services into the organization for the first time.

In May, Brennan announced its acquisition of California-based Harbor Offshore Inc., which specializes in commercial diving, marine construction, maritime security barriers and submarine cable installation.

March saw several significant acquisitions. Campbell Transportation Company Inc., announced it had signed an agreement to acquire most marine assets owned by NGL Marine LLC by the end of the month. The acquisition meant that CTC now owns or operates more than 1,250 barges throughout the inland waterway system, including 95 tank barges, supported by more than 60 towboats. Also in March, U.S. marine terminal and logistics company Enstructure acquired Richardson Companies, a terminal and logistics company with primary operations in Port Houston and the Port of Mobile.

In June, grain merchant Bunge said it was merging with Glencore-backed Viterra to form a new agricultural trading giant worth about $34 billion, including debt. Both companies operate numerous river terminals. The boards of both companies approved the deal in June, and shareholders approved it in October. The deal is expected to close in 2024.

Consolidated Grain & Barge Company announced in September that it had acquired JB Shipyards in St. Louis, Mo.

Seacor Holdings Inc. dramatically changed its overall profile and structure this year. In September, just weeks after integrating its Seabulk Tankers subsidiary with Crowley’s tanker division, Seacor Marine announced that it was selling its U.S. harbor towing operations to E.N. Bisso & Son, which bought 12 harbor tugs operating in Florida and Alabama, along with associated business operations. At the same time, Bay-Houston Towing bought eight Seacor vessels at Sabine Pass and Lake Charles. Both companies have a strong presence in their respective regions, and the extra tugs will expand their existing fleets. On October 24, Seacor announced that it had signed an agreement to sell Inland River Transport Holdings LLC (SCF Marine) to Ingram Barge Company. The deal included more than 1,000 barges, eight 6,000-hp.-plus towboats and a network of terminals and fleets.

Entact LLC, a leading provider of environmental remediation and geotechnical services and a portfolio company of investment affiliates of J.F. Lehman & Company, announced September 18 that it had completed the acquisition of White Lake Dock & Dredge Inc., a specialized environmental dredging, sediment capping and marine construction provider with more than 20 years of project execution across the United States.

Infrastructure Spending Continues

The ongoing flow of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) continued to accelerate investment in U.S. infrastructure—and to strain the capacity of the Corps of Engineers. The two laws were joined by numerous authorizations and legislative changes in the bipartisan Waterways Resources Development Act of 2022, signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023.

The year saw notable landmarks and groundbreakings in major projects important to the waterways industry. The first section of Port Houston’s Project 11—the Houston Ship Channel expansion project—was completed in February and significant progress continued. Port officials announced that dredging of the first segment extending from Bolivar Roads to Redfish, known as Segment 1A, was completed on schedule and on budget.


The Rock Island Engineer District hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for a new mooring cell at Upper Mississippi Lock 14, the first of eight new cells to be built at Upper Miss locks.


The main chamber of Mel Price Locks and Dam at Alton, Ill., reopened March 31 after a 90-day planned closure to allow contractors to demolish and replace an overlook building. The $9.9 million work was Phase II of a three-phase plan to replace the main chamber’s lift gates. Phase III, the replacement of the lift gates, will take place in the winter of 2025 and will require another closure.

The overlooks, located on the upstream end of the main lock on both sides of the lock chamber, are reinforced concrete buildings supported by reinforced concrete columns that house the lock’s primary control operations and an office, break room and visitor area.

In August, the 1,200-foot chamber of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam was closed to commercial and recreational traffic after engineers found a concerning crack in one of the lock chamber’s lift gates after a towboat allided with it.

An expansion project for adding a new 1,200-foot chamber to Upper Mississippi Lock and Dam 25 broke ground May 18. It was the culmination of a decades-long odyssey for many among the attendees, a generational event and a major milestone for the navigation industry and ag interests. The lack of a 1,200-foot chamber had made Lock 25 at Winfield, Mo., just north of St. Louis, a major choke-point for tows.


A fish passage at Lock 22 further upriver at Saverton, Mo., broke ground the same day as the Lock 25 project. Both were funded by the IIJA under the umbrella of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. Many prominent attendees at the Lock 25 groundbreaking had devoted big portions of their careers to implementing NESP, keeping it alive during years of neglect and disinterest on the part of Congress.


A groundbreaking in the Pittsburgh region August 11 kicked off construction at Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Upper Ohio River. Montgomery is part of the Upper Ohio navigation system, which sees 15 to 20 million tons of materials pass through its river chambers annually. The Upper Ohio Navigation Project—which also will include new chambers at Dashields and Emsworth Locks — is expected to support 28,800 jobs over its construction life and 5,400 jobs annually after completion.


On the Monongahela River, the Pittsburgh Engineer District announced that work on the Charleroi Lock and Dam, a project that began nearly 20 years ago and whose budget has stretched to $1.23 billion, will be completed by January 2024.


The Tulsa and Little Rock Engineer districts oversaw a groundbreaking event for the Three Rivers Project near Little Rock, Ark., on August 24. The project, a long-time barge industry goal, centers on the confluence of the White and Arkansas rivers upstream from Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, where the two rivers want to merge, threatening a loss of navigation pool above Montgomery Lock and Dam. The project has been given $109.1 million in federal funding and includes four construction components, including a new containment structure and a relief channel.


From June 1 through September 30, three locks on the Illinois River closed for scheduled and needed repairs. The Brandon Road, Dresden Island and Marseilles locks closed on June 1, to facilitate needed repairs and maintenance, and they reopened on schedule by October 1.

On September 9, the Corps signed a partnership agreement with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Port of Terrebonne to begin efforts to advance the Houma Navigation Canal Deepening project. The total construction cost is estimated at $253,458,000. Mississippi Valley Engineer Division Commander Brig. Gen. Kimberly Peeples called the 36.7-mile-long Houma Canal “the lifeline of Terrebonne Parish, serving as the interstate to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Unplanned Closures

The auxiliary chamber at Meldahl Locks and Dam, Ohio River Mile 436.2, was closed beginning in the summer. Additional manpower was brought in, and it reopened in November after a dive inspection found significant problems with the alignment of gates in the main chamber that have required it to be dewatered and closed indefinitely.


The New Orleans Engineer District began a 60-day closure at Algiers Lock on October 2 to repair damage incurred in a July 4 allision, when a towing vessel pushing a loaded barge struck the lock’s canal-end sector gates, piercing the south-side sector gate’s skin and damaging its structural steel frame.


The Lindy C. Boggs Lock on the Red River, also known as Lock 1, also saw some unscheduled work after a lockmaster noticed a crack in the miter gate anchorage on the lower land-side gate on September 28. Lock personnel lowered the water level in the lock to reduce pressure on the gate, and the U.S. Coast Guard announced the closure of the lock to navigation, pending repairs. The lock reopened to full traffic November 18 after emergency repairs took place around the clock.


Meanwhile, on the Tennessee River, tows continue to wait an average of 13 to 15 hours to begin locking through Wilson Lock, more than two years after remnants of a hurricane sank a floating guidewall. Information about the delays was provided by Nikki Berger, TVA navigation program supervisor, at the 57th annual meeting of the Tennessee River Valley Association and the Tennessee-Cumberland Waterways Council October 9-10 in Franklin, Tenn.


September saw the beginning of work on another long-awaited project, the deepening of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River System to 12 feet, a project discussed for 20 years. The Tulsa and Little Rock Engineer districts have begun a required environmental study to guarantee a navigation channel of the Arkansas River to 12 feet along a 445-mile length. The 12-foot depth was authorized in 2004, but never funded. The current project was able to be initiated thanks to $96.6 million in funds from the IIJA received in March.

The deepening of the MKARNS channel to 12 feet raised a question of whether, in a climate of repeated low-water events, it might not be possible to dredge the Middle Mississippi River to 12 feet from the current 9-foot draft, since that was authorized by Congress in 1944 but never funded.

Inflation Threatens Project Costs, Timetables

The unscheduled closures illustrated the need for continued waterways infrastructure funding after decades of underfunding and neglect. However, the flood of investment funds from IIJA and IRA also had its downsides.


In March, Chief of Engineers Gen. Scott Spellmon told members of the Inland Waterways Users Board that he had submitted no request to Assistant Secretary of the Army forCivil Works Michael Connor for any funding from the approximately $125 million available annually in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund because the Corps “does not have any capability” to use it due to its work on ongoing IIJA-funded projects.


Further dampening the news about infrastructure investment was the high inflation rate of the past two years, which approached 9 percent at its peak. Inflation has upended cost-benefit analyses for many important infrastructure projects—including waterways projects. The costs of projects that were declared “fully funded” a short time ago have now been readjusted to account for steep increases in the prices of materials and market ucertainty.


These concerns emerged at Inland Waterways Users Board meetings with Corps officials. A presentation by Kevin Jasper, chief of the Integrated Project Office of the Nashville Engineer District, at the April 13 Users Board meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa., laid out reasons for delays in the completion of the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project, authorized in 2003 and reauthorized in 2018. The total project cost estimate is now $954,396,000. About 2.5 years have been added to the lock operation date, and three years have been added to the original target project completion date. An additional $237 million is required to fully fund the project to current cost estimates, Jasper said.


At the July 20 meeting with Corps officials in Paducah, Ky., board members learned more about how inflation eroded gains made in funding major construction and rehabilitation projects in the IIJA and IRA. The cost of the Kentucky Lock Replacement Project had ballooned by an additional $332 million, bringing the total project cost estimate to $1,561,073,000, while Montgomery Lock and Dam added nearly $513 million in estimated costs, to give just two examples.


In response, Corps officials have been adding contingency funds to their project estimates to try to guarantee that each project will have enough funding to be completed. For example, the work at Montgomery Lock and Dam is on schedule, but a Corps spokesperson told the Users Board that the new certified project cost for Montgomery was completed June 16 and is now roughly $1.7 billion, which includes a “sizeable contingency” to cover market uncertainty and inflation.


Phase 2 of the Three Rivers Project was originally authorized to proceed for a cost of up to $279.49 million; the certified cost estimate released in December was $355.68 million.


At this writing, inflation has been curbed to an annual rate of about 3.4 percent by the Federal Reserve, but the price hikes and increases in the cost of materials and labor remain.


Industry figures, including the Inland Waterways Users Board and Waterways Council Inc., called for Congress to keep its commitment to providing full federal funding to complete the projects, despite the cost increases.

Arguin Keynotes GNOBFA, Highlights Mariner Recruitment

The Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association hosted its 39th annual River and Marine Industry Seminar, one of the oldest and most respected maritime law seminars in the country, April 26-28 in New Orleans. As in past years, the GNOBFA organizers structured the informative panels on issues of maritime law and marine insurance around a hypothetical scenario involving a marine accident and its legal aftermaths.


Rear Adm. Wayne Arguin, the U.S. Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, who also led low-water responses in New Orleans last year, gave the keynote address. Arguin spoke about, among other things, the importance of recruitment and ongoing efforts within the Coast Guard and Congress to address issues of sexual harassment at sea. Arguin said most of his time in recent years has been spent on issues of recruitment and maintaining the mental health of mariners.


The joint issues of recruitment of merchant mariners and sexual harassment were also addressed by Maritime Administrator Ann Philips, who in May released a discussion of a September 2022 survey on mariner recruitment and retention that updated a 2017 report on a shortage of merchant mariners.

Sackett Ruling Takes Aim At WOTUS Wars

Legal and political contention over the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act continued in 2023. Discord over the definition had become a years-long saga of suits, countersuits and battles in Congress. The Environmental Protection Agency had gone ahead with the latest of several contentious redefinitions of WOTUS—despite the Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the 15-year-old case of Michael and Chantell Sackett, whose plans to build a vacation home near the shores of Priest Lake in Idaho were halted by threats of crippling fines from EPA over alleged Clean Water Act violations.


In May the Supreme Court ruled in the Sacketts’ favor. All nine justices agreed that the Sacketts’ property was not a wetland under the CWA. However, they split 5-4 on the redefinition of “Waters of the U.S.,” with Justice Kavanaugh writing for the majority.

Those on either side of the issue who hoped that the Sackett ruling would quell the WOTUS wars were disappointed. Sackett’s critics, which include many environmental groups, lamented that the ruling reduced CWA protections. WOTUS critics, including farm and business interests, said the ruling didn’t go far enough to rein in what they considered federal overreach.


On August 29, the EPA and Corps of Engineers issued a final rule that amends the “Revised Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’” to conform key aspects of the regulatory text to Sackett. The conforming rule, “Revised Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’; Conforming,” was published in the Federal Register and became effective on September 8.

Political maneuvering over the definition of “Waters of the United Staes” under the Clean Water Act continued in 2023, and it’s far from clear whether Sackett will forestall further lawsuits.

Rushing Honored AT IMX

The 2023 Inland Marine Expo was held in Nashville, Tenn., from May 31-June 2, and the venue proved so successful that next year’s IMX was also scheduled for Nashville. Mike Rushing, who died March 5 at the age of 79, was posthumously honored with the IMX Achievement Award. Speakers stressed Rushing’s modesty and service to others. Tava Foret, president and co-founder with Rushing of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau, spoke about Rushing’s outsized legacy, including helping to create what became the Coast Guard’s Subchapter M regulations by which the industry currently operates to help ensure mariner and vessel safety.

Energy Transition Explored

The search for lower-carbon energy solutions took center stage at the IMX, with well-attended sessions on “Decarbonizing the Marine Industry” and “Green Advantage: The Efficiency and Accessibility of Electric Machines for Ports and Terminals.”

On August 25, Kirby Inland Marine marked an energy-transition milestone when it christened the nation’s first plug-in hybrid towboat, the mv. Green Diamond, in the Channelview, Texas, harbor.


The Green Diamond hybrid system works by combining diesel generators with batteries to deliver efficient power to the vessel through a centralized Power Management System. The vessel was designed and built by San Jac Marine LLC, Kirby’s shipyard in Channelview. Stewart & Stevenson Manufacturing Technologies, another Kirby company, designed and installed the power management, control and propulsion systems.


The Green Diamond will work in the Houston harbor and be time-chartered by Shell Trading Company. Shell New Energies U.S. LLC installed the Zinus charging system at Kirby’s dock, while Shell Energy Solutions will supply electricity to the charging station. Power to charge the Green Diamond’s battery system will be purchased through certified renewable energy certificates. Kirby officials said they expect the Green Diamond to run on battery power 80 percent of the time and achieve emissions reductions of between 88 and 95 percent.


Energy transition pathways were discussed at a Summer Safety meeting of The American Waterways Operators in downtown St. Louis August 16-17, titled “Sustainability Solutions for Marine Segments.” Gary Sarrat of Caterpillar Maine set the theme when he said, “There is no single silver bullet or unicorn technology” for lowering maritime emissions. Instead, there are many choices, each with trade-offs to consider. Mike Breslin, AWO’s director of safety and sustainability, introduced panelists and speakers.


Sarrat’s presentation covered Cat’s engine upgrades, services, electric and hybrid powertrains, lower-carbon-intensity fuels and regulated emissions. He said companies are getting more sophisticated about calculating their carbon cycles. “Just going to an alternative fuel doesn’t always mean fewer emissions,” he said.


Sarrat covered the pros and cons and tradeoffs of alternative fuels from biofuels and renewable diesel to methanol, liquid hydrogen, compressed hydrogen and battery-stored electricity. He explained the concept of “volumetric density,” or the amount of energy per equivalent volume. Hydrogen has zero carbon emissions but requires 10 times more volume than diesel for an equal amount of energy. Even liquefied hydrogen still requires five times the volume of diesel. It also requires a lot of energy to liquefy it and keep it cool, reducing its overall carbon efficiency.

California DPF Rule Opposed

Regulatory efforts to reduce marine carbon emissions by the state of California drew attention from maritime interests in 2023. On January 1, the California Air Resources Board gave operators of harbor craft, including commercial towboats, until December 24 of this year to fit all their boats with diesel particulate filters to reduce soot emissions to near zero. Such filters designed to safely fit with marine diesel engines don’t exist and won’t for several years, meaning that vessels could either be forced off the water or face crippling fines without changing the rule’s unworkable timeline.


AWO CEO Jennifer Carpenter wrote, “CARB has adopted rules that will force tugboat and other vessel operators to install DPFs that are neither Coast Guard-approved nor certified by recognized classification societies such as the respected maritime safety and technical experts at the American Bureau of Shipping. The glaring absence of these crucial certifications, which could take until 2025, raises concerns about the reliability and safety of these systems in the marine environment. Despite this, the board is now asking the Environmental Protection Agency to grant a waiver under section 209(e) of the Clean Air Act to allow them to enforce their unsafe rule.” After a public hearing, California lawmakers introduced a bill to delay the rule.

Low Water Returns

The spring snowmelt floods occurred within a framework of ongoing drought. By mid-summer, river levels were again dropping as drought continued throughout the upper Midwest. As harvest approached, no rain relief was in sight, and low water once again became a major news story.


River industry leaders collaborated closely with the Corps and Coast Guard through the River Industry Action Committee, the Lower Mississippi River Committee and other advisory committees to keep channels open and running safely. Low water kept tow sizes and drafts under restriction for much of the year, sending barge rates higher and adding to the cost of exporting grain.

River levels below New Orleans fell low enough that salt water began to infiltrate the river from the Gulf of Mexico, putting drinking water at risk of contamination. The salt water intrusion prompted the Corps of Engineers to build a “sill” or ledge of built-up silt to block the higher-density salt water from traveling along the river bottom. The salt water was in retreat by the end of October, with the Corps continuing to monitor the threat.


Navigation on the MKARNS was briefly threatened when low water closed the mouth of the system where it debouches into the Mississippi River. On November 8, the Memphis Engineer District said it had moved 16.4 million cubic yards of dredged material and forecast that low water conditions would continue into winter.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is a 62 percent chance of an El Niño pattern continuing through April 2024. A “normal” baseline dredging year may be a thing of the past.

One river system not affected this year by low water was the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway system, whose leaders said there had been increased interest and cargo movements on that system.