America’s Great Flood of the last century was in 1927, immortalized by Randy Newman in song and by John Barry in his book on the transformative event in the Mississippi Delta.
But we’re past that now: Baton Rouge has shattered the record for the longest duration that the Mississippi River has remained at flood stage, which had been set in 1927. The river has been above flood stage for 160 days and counting.
What comes down as rain and snow in the more northern regions of the country comes to us as river water, also carrying the silt that over millennia created southeastern Louisiana.
Now that the river has been channeled by levees since the 1930s, it is an even more extraordinary pathway of commerce. It’s endangered by high water, since more water means more silt transported downstream, making areas of navigation shallower.
"It's going to get worse," said Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, a Metairie-based group that looks after the navigation on the Mississippi River Ship Channel. In a typical year, about 19 million cubic yards of material is dredged from Venice to the Gulf of Mexico to keep ship traffic moving smoothly. So far, Duffy told The Advocate that 34 million cubic yards of silt have been dredged and at least another 10 million to 12 million cubic yards need to be removed.
For the past month and a half, vessels on the ship channel have had a draft restriction of 44 feet, meaning they've had to navigate at that depth. Because of this, vessels have either not been loaded to capacity or they've waited until after they got through the ship channel to fully load, Duffy said.
Dredging is necessary for the river in ordinary times. As a basic maintenance cost, it’s not politically appealing — a challenge for those who run ports across the country, not just on the Mississippi.
A specific federal tax on shippers is supposed to fund dredging, but it is often not spent, an issue that Louisiana’s delegation in Congress has tried to change. It’s an annual battle to fund dredging, and catastrophic natural events like the record high water make it more important than usual.
And one thing that has not changed: Time is money.
With more than two dozen ships at one point waiting on a path up the river, according to port officials in Louisiana, operators are paying thousands a day for the delays — costs ultimately passed on to consumers.
All of which underscores the Mississippi’s importance as a corridor of commerce. It costs too much money to fail to maintain it.