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Navigating Into the Future

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ navigation and waterways mission assures the continued – and underappreciated – value of America’s ports, harbors, and inland waterways.

The General Survey Act of 1824 authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to formulate surveys for waterways that were of commercial or military importance, or were used for mail delivery. In the same year, USACE was assigned to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and later the Missouri River. It marked the beginning of USACE’s involvement in civil works projects, and provided a foundation for economic development and westward expansion.

Today, USACE is responsible for ensuring safe, reliable and sustainable movement of vessels through the nation’s inland and intracoastal waterway system, and its activities include the planning and construction of new navigation channels, locks and dams, and dredging operations to maintain channel depths in waterways and coastal ports. The Corps operates and maintains 12,000 miles of commercial inland navigation channels and 13,000 miles of coastal navigation channels. The waterway system under USACE’s authority includes 196 lock and dam sites. To keep the nation’s waterways navigable, USACE dredges nearly 300 million cubic yards of material every year – nearly twice the amount of earth moved to create the Panama Canal.

Benefits to the Economy – and to the Environment
The value of waterborne commerce to the United States is staggering, accounting for more than $2.3 trillion in economic activity – nearly a third of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). More than 95 percent of the nation’s volume of foreign trade moves through U.S. waterways and ports, and about one-sixth of the cargo traveling between U.S. cities is moved through the nation’s inland and coastal waterways.

While the overall volume of goods moving through American waterways is remarkable – 630 million tons, valued at more than $70 billion annually – the efficiencies and savings associated with waterborne commerce are also worth noting. According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, it is $11 cheaper per ton to send goods by water as opposed to other means of transportation – truck or train. A single river tow consisting of 15 barges carries as much cargo as 870 large semi-trailer trucks, or slightly more than 200 rail freight cars. Overall, shipping by water saves nearly $7 billion annually.

A less direct benefit of USACE’s navigation projects is that they help to limit air pollution by enabling multiple-barge tows to move cargo long distances while using considerably less fuel than trains or trucks would need. On average, a gallon of fuel allows one ton of cargo to be shipped 155 miles by truck, 436 miles by rail and 576 miles by barge.

As it carries out its mission to keep ports and waterways navigable, USACE works hard to protect the often-fragile river and coastal environments in which its navigation projects are conducted. First, USACE uses dredge material as a resource, said Jim Walker, the USACE Navigation program manager. “Dredging used to be viewed as creating a waste product,” he said. “What we try to emphasize is that … the material that we dredge is a resource opportunity. It can be used to create wetlands, nourish beaches, build protective berms, any number of things. There are beneficial use opportunities for this material, and to show how far public perception has come, now there are folks fighting over it. They want that dredge material to be beneficially used. Certainly, the vast majority – about 96 percent of the material – is clean, uncontaminated sediment.”

In addition to encouraging the beneficial use of dredge material, USACE often times its dredging operations to minimize disruption and damage to marine or aquatic species. For example, along the Southern Atlantic Coast, where four threatened and endangered species of sea turtles live and breed, USACE worked with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to see that each of the agencies could carry out its mission: USACE to keep coastal channels navigable and NOAA Fisheries to protect the turtle species. Using USACE data from past South Atlantic dredging operations, the agencies issued a Regional Biological Opinion that, Walker said, “basically stated that our hopper dredging in the South Atlantic Coast must be accomplished within a four-month window. Additionally, there are steps taken while we’re dredging to try to minimize the chances of any incidental taking of turtle lives. We’ve got more than 15 years of history of our dredging activities and turtle takes so that we can learn, refine and improve our ability to reduce those takes in future years.”

USACE uses technology to further limit harm to turtles. Through its Dredging Quality Management Program, it uses instruments that monitor precisely where the drag head of a hopper dredge is operating at the time of a turtle take or other incident. “We’ve been able to use that technology,” said Walker, “and refine the dredging operation characteristics to try and reduce our turtle takes.”

Growing Pains for the Marine Transportation System
In 1970, waterborne commerce accounted for a mere 13 percent of the nation’s GDP. By 2007, the figure had grown to more than 30 percent. The growth already achieved in the inland and coastal waterways is set to increase further. Many of the nation’s coastal ports are nearing capacity. Over the next 20 years, the shipment of cargo by container ship is expected to increase by 65 percent, creating an even greater need for the Corps’ services.

USACE is currently struggling to keep pace with rapid changes in the maritime transport industry. Ships are getting larger and require greater drafts. The newest generation of large cargo vessels entering the world fleet are deep-draft vessels requiring an unprecedented 45 to 50 feet of channel depth. Very few U.S. ports today are sufficient for handling such vessels.

Likewise, the standard configuration for several inland navigation systems is 15 barges maneuvered by a single towboat. This size tow can be accommodated in a single lockage at the largest USACE locks – 1,200 feet in length – but just over 10 percent of the nation’s 237 functioning lock chambers are this size. “Now that you’ve kind of achieved this characteristic 15-barge tow, having to break it into two separate lockages can take you four hours,” he said, “where being able to lock it all through at once takes only one hour. There is a tremendous transportation cost savings, time savings, in being able to have 1,200-foot lock chambers as a standard.”

USACE long ago began to modernize its ports and waterways infrastructure. The first 1,200-foot locks were built in the 1960s on the Ohio River, and the modernization continues today with additional locks being built in Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Capital investments on coastal and inland navigation assets are not keeping pace with aging infrastructure and industry changes. “In an asset’s life cycle,” said Walker, “you’ll reach a point where you’ve got to make the decision about recapitalizing, replacing or retiring it. The majority of inland projects that were built back in the post-Depression era are now reaching their original service life of 50 years. We’re at that point of needing to make difficult decisions on capital investments – and then the issue becomes whether you’ve got the money to do the additional improvement to reach that new standard or not.”

Making decisions about where to direct funds are complicated, Walker said, by two different factors. First is the lack of a nationwide “master plan” for the marine transportation system. The Committee on the Marine Transportation System, with representatives of more than 20 federal agencies that have marine transportation responsibilities is working at the Washington level to discuss these issues, Walker said, but it has no formal authority to establish a marine transportation policy.

A master plan, Walker said, could help the nation prioritize its resources and attack its deficiencies with greater focus – for example, the lack of ports able to accommodate the newer deep-draft cargo vessels. “Under a master strategy,” he said, “you could decide how many ports you need to maintain at a particular depth. Let’s say eventually you’ll need greater than a 55-foot depth. You’ll need to stay in front of that requirement. The idea is to have a conscious discussion of what a national strategy ought to be, as opposed to the pursuit of individual projects.”

The other important factor in keeping pace with industry changes, of course, is funding. The mechanisms under which USACE pays for its navigation projects – the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund – were established nearly a quarter-century ago in the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, and they need revision to produce the revenue USACE needs to keep the nation’s navigation infrastructure reliable and efficient. The reasons for each fund’s shortcomings are different, and complex enough that only an accountant could explain them; the simplest explanation is that each has constraints on how revenues are collected, calculated, and spent.

“With the money we are receiving out of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund,” Walker said, “we just aren’t able to keep the full dimensions, depth and width, of navigation channels open and available. So the result becomes that ships may have to lighten their loads, or alter their schedules. It’s impacting their ability to maximize their economic return.” There is an effort by navigation interests to structure the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund like the Aviation and Highway Trust Funds, which Congress appropriates based on the prior year’s revenues.

One of the biggest priorities for the Corps of Engineers is to have these funding mechanisms restructured to accommodate the work that is urgently needed on America’s waterways and ports infrastructure. “The trust fund legislation is really going to set the future course of our navigation program,” Walker said, “and we’re excited because there is draft legislation, consisting of changes to both of those trust funds, currently being considered by Congress.”

A More Collaborative Future
The legislation for the new Inland Waterways Trust Fund was the result of a joint effort between USACE and private-sector partners to develop a 20-year capital investment plan. The public-private collaboration, Walker said, was “the closest thing to a national marine transportation strategy we’ve seen. This approach will allow us to optimize the constrained funds to reduce the risk of unscheduled lock closures at locations of the greatest potential for adverse economic impact. It’s serving as a model for other USACE civil works business lines in terms of trying to develop investment strategies for those programs as well.”

In the meantime, USACE is implementing an asset management approach to its navigation lock inventory, conducting a nation-wide operational condition assessment. “We’re focused on passing traffic through the lock,” said Walker. “So these assessments will provide us with a very good road map for making the best use of constrained Operation and Maintenance funding.” The first baseline assessments are under way already, and the current timeline calls for the results to inform longer-term budget discussions that will begin in spring of 2011.

“Ultimately, having that type of information is going to enable us to develop life cycles for these navigation components,” said Walker, “to where we would, if the funds are available, be able to get into a preventive maintenance mode on our highest use projects and to assure reliable transportation in others.”

In summarizing what he sees as the future for the USACE navigation program, Walker concluded, “I’m confident we have the foundation in asset management and the trust fund legislation adjustments to set the course for reliable and efficient navigation infrastructure for the next 25 years.”

This article first appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...