BY FRANK MCCORMACK
August 14, 2017
The 112th annual seminar of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), held in New Orleans, La., July 26–28, welcomed more than 200 registrants who listened and weighed in on a wide range of topics, all critical to the use and maintenance of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW).
The GIWW dredging panel filled most of the seats at the seminar as waterway operators and stakeholders heard from three representatives from the dredging community: Rick Smith, special projects manager with Inland Dredging; Scotty Emmons, a senior manager with Orion Marine Group; and Randy Boyd, president of RLB Contracting Inc.
Boyd started the panel discussion with an overview of how and why a waterway gets dredged.
“Just like the maintenance of the highways, [the GIWW] is a federal project and it is something that has to be done,” Boyd said, adding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with maintaining the waterways.
Unlike a highway, though, where damage and debris are clearly visible to passersby, shoaling on the GIWW usually isn’t identified until a barge or towboat runs aground or the Corps discovers it as part of a regular survey, he said. Once shoaling is detected, the Corps will formulate plans and specifications, advertise a contract, then typically award the contract to the lowest bidder, Boyd explained.
Boyd then outlined his company’s contract to dredge 16 miles of the GIWW in the area of San Antonio Bay, Texas, as an example of a typical dredge contract.
“Within this contract, we’re going to move 2.5 million cubic yards of silt out of the channel,” Boyd said.
Laid out linearly, those 2.5 million cubic yards would stretch from New Orleans to New York City, Boyd said.
Boyd then explained how a dredge moves material from a shoal to a sediment disposal area via a series of pipes.
“What we’re trying to do as we come through here and make y’all realize through this that, when we bring a dredge tow to this area and to this type of contract, we bring a dredge, of course, we bring anchor barges with us, we bring assist tugs with us, we bring two or three supply barges to have the supplies for the dredge, we bring a crane barge to help us move and lift and do the things we have to do,” Boyd said. “But bigger than that, on this job, we have over 30,000 linear feet of 20-inch pipeline, and that’s because of the different line lengths we get on.”
According to Boyd, barge traffic is not allowed on the side of the dredge where the pipelines are arranged. Also according to the contract, Boyd said, the dredge company controls half the channel and commercial vessels have access to the other half of the channel. With a 125-foot-wide channel, that leaves little to spare.
“What we want everybody to understand is, there is a tremendous hazard out here,” he said. “The towing industry needs our dredges to work to maintain these channels and canals so they can come in, produce the product and have the draft they need.
“What we need to do as an industry is work together through this to find solutions,” Boyd added.
Boyd said, when his company got the San Antonio Bay contract, he reached out to both the U.S. Coast Guard and GICA to stress the need for limited tow sizes—a request that has been honored, he added.
But Boyd also stressed that the right of way has to lie with someone.
“We are anchored; we are the least mobile vessel,” Boyd said. “Thus we are supposed to have the right of way and y’all have to steer clear of us, because we can’t move once we’re in that position.”
Chris Frabotta, deputy chief of operations for the Corps’ Galveston District, said he understands the desire to limit the frequency of movements required for a dredge operation. At the same time, though, he offered clarification for who holds the right of way when a dredge is operating on a waterway.
“Just to be clear, in all of the Galveston District’s contracts, we require the contractor to yield to the barge industry and the tows,” Frabotta said. “The way our specs are written, we tell contractors bidding on the jobs that they need to yield to traffic and minimize any impacts to navigation. It’s clear in the specs, so a contractor bidding on that should know about how many tows come by in a day and build that into their bid and adjust their bid according to that.”
Dredge leaders also mentioned the effect swift current in a waterway can have on safety. Tim Osborn, navigation manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggested outfitting not just dredges but every assist vessel with AIS transponders so approaching towboats can respond accordingly.
There was a question from the crowd about whether assist vessels working for the dredge contractor might offer assistance to tows passing in close proximity, but Boyd said in his opinion that creates a liability problem for the dredge contractor.
The New Orleans District at times requires a picket boat to be kept on site expressly for aiding passing tows.
“That may be a consideration Galveston may want to take in the future,” Smith said. “We’d obviously include that in a spread and find operators who’d done that work before to assist.”
Boyd added that, if Corps districts do move to requiring picket boats, then the Corps and industry should collaborate to set specifications for picket boats, since that is not necessarily within a dredge company’s area of expertise.