NEW ORLEANS — Just as Louisiana begins an ambitious slate of projects to rebuild its crumbling coastline, the essential ingredients — sea sand and river silt — will be harder to come by.
That’s not because these materials are rare; the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River are loaded with the stuff. But the dredges needed to dig up and move sand, silt and sediment are increasingly scarce.
“What we’re seeing right now is a massive demand on a limited dredge fleet,” said Col. Stephen Murphy, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District. “So as the state looks to do a lot of coastal restoration projects . what I foresee is increasing competition. With that limited supply and increasing demand, it won’t surprise me if prices go up.”
The Corps is the nation’s top customer of the nation’s relatively small, mostly privately owned dredge fleet. In the Gulf region, only about 20 of the cutterhead dredges preferred for large-scale projects are available. But the potential workload of Corps and state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority projects exceeds the region’s dredge capacity for all of this year, next year and every month in 2022 except December, according to a recent Corps assessment. And this doesn’t even factor in the demand generated by private sector projects.
The dearth of dredges is likely to delay or balloon the budgets of several projects the state is counting on to substantially slow the rate of land loss, improve habitat for fish and birds, and protect New Orleans and other populated areas from surging waters from hurricanes and tropical storms.
“These restoration projects are our first line of defense,” Murphy said.
It’s because the projects are so important that the state plans to pour an immense amount of money, time and effort into them. At least 10 large coastal restoration projects that rely heavily on dredged material are planned in Louisiana over the next three years. They include a vast marsh rebuild of the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans East, reviving the LaBranche wetlands near Kenner and bulking up the emaciated wetlands that protect Port Fourchon in southern Lafourche Parish, the service hub for most of the oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.
One project, which recently received $100 million from a fund set aside by BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, is expected to break the state’s record for the largest volume of dredged sediment used on a single project. More than 16 million cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill the Superdome three times — will be dredged and piled across a section of coast in Spanish Pass near Venice and the mouth of the Mississippi River. The project would rebuild a low coastal ridge and 1,700 acres of marsh and boost storm protections for Jean Lafitte and Barataria Bay.
Another record-breaking project is the large marsh creation effort the CPRA plans to undertake later this year in Lake Borgne on the east edge of St. Bernard Parish, about 10 miles from New Orleans. The $115 million project, also funded with BP money, will use dredged material to revive almost 3,000 acres of marsh in Borgne, which is actually a saltwater bay that has grown wider as its marshlands have eroded. The revived marsh would provide a large buffer against storm surges aimed at St. Bernard and New Orleans East.
“It’s by far our largest wetland-creation project we’ve done,” CPRA Executive Director Bren Haase said.
Greg Grandy, CPRA’s deputy director and a former manager of barrier island restoration projects, said the sheer volume of projects and the amount of sediment needed to complete them is unprecedented.
“We’ve had a significant uptick in dredging,” he said. “It’s not just the amount of dredge projects but also the amount of sediment dredged.”
Until recently, the CPRA typically needed dredges on one or two projects per year, and the volume of dredged material averaged around 4 million cubic yards.
This year and next, the agency will need more than 13 times that amount.
The CPRA hasn’t yet assessed how the scarcity of dredges will affect its projects, but similar difficulties in the past have caused lengthy delays and cost overruns.
A slowing pace for restoration projects could mean the protection they offer comes too late, depending on when and where the next batch of hurricanes strike.
Citing Louisiana’s history with storms and land loss, a report from Tulane University last month said the high cost and low availability of dredges should be top concern for state leaders.
“Nothing should be more paramount than incentivizing investment in dredging to reduce costs for coastal erosion,” the report said.
Higher Cost, Less Coast
The boom in projects requiring large volumes of sediment underscores longstanding challenges with the U.S. dredge fleet. Chief among them: skyrocketing costs. Between 2003 and 2012, dredging prices increased 117% while the amount of material dredged in the U.S. rose by less than 10%, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Protectionist policies, including the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906 and the Jones Act, effectively banned foreign companies from dredging in U.S. waters. All dredges must be U.S.-built, U.S.-operated and U.S.-crewed.
Restricting foreign dredges may have helped some American companies, but the policies had the effect of creating a small, closed market dominated by just four firms that now handle 98% of all private-sector dredge work.
The Corps’ own fleet of dredges, which once boasted 14 high-capacity units, has been whittled down to just four amid a push for privatization that started in the 1970s.
The current fleet of private dredges is smaller, older and less efficient than what’s found on the international market, where competition remains fierce. European dredging companies have greatly expanded their capacity and are now the world’s leading exporters of dredging services.
A Local Example
In contrast, the combined capacity of all U.S. hopper dredges, which can dig and transport material, amounts to less than a third of what one Dutch firm can offer, according to data from the Corps and international dredging organizations.
Costs are much lower outside the U.S. as well. The 2018 restoration of Whiskey Island, Louisiana’s biggest beach rebuild project to date, cost $118 million and used 15.8 million cubic yards of dredged sand. A similar project in the Netherlands was completed for about half the cost and managed to move nearly two times as much sand.
Opening up the U.S. to foreign dredges, a policy change opposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, won’t be happening any time soon. In the meantime, CPRA officials say they’ll make do with whatever dredge work they can squeeze out of the domestic market.
Grandy said there are a few hopeful signs. Fuel prices are low, and if they continue that way, costs could remain manageable. A few U.S. dredging firms have announced new or soon-to-come additions to their fleets, potentially freeing up vessels for work in Louisiana.
“Having some dredgers coming online would really help,” he said.
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