BY FRANK MCCORMACK
September 11, 2017
While the long road to recovery is just underway for residents and businesses along the Texas Gulf Coast, waterways in the region are gradually returning to normal. The reopening of ports and waterways comes thanks to the cooperative efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and private industry.
As of late last week, the only complete closures remaining on the Texas Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) were from the Brazos River Floodgates west to the Colorado Locks and a portion of Matagorda Bay.
With rainwater continuing to drain from the region, the Brazos River at the floodgates was flowing at 7.3 mph. as of September 7—too fast for tows to safely cross the river. Flows were expected to drop below 7 mph. over the weekend. The high-water plan at the Brazos River Floodgates calls for navigation to halt when the river flows in excess of 7 mph. From 5 mph. to 7 mph., vessels are allowed to move one barge at a time through the locks in daylight hours only. The flow rate must drop below 5 mph. for vessels to pass 24 hours a day.
West of the Brazos, the GIWW was closed all the way to the Colorado River Locks, where the problem wasn’t too much water but instead too little. Shoaling, particularly on the west side of the locks, brought traffic there to a standstill. The Corps deployed a dredge to the lock late last week, with work expected to take around a week. Shoaling west of the Colorado River meant the waterway was closed all the way to Mile 465 in Matagorda Bay.
Elsewhere on the GIWW, the canal was open 24 hours a day from Brownsville to Corpus Christi. East of Corpus Christi, the GIWW was open in daylight hours at the Victoria Barge Canal with a 10-foot draft restriction. The railroad bridge there as of last week was operating between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. From Corpus Christi all the way to Mile 465 in Matagorda Bay, the waterway was open 24 hours a day with an 11-foot draft restriction.
On the east side of the Brazos River Floodgates, the GIWW as of September 7 was open 24 hours a day all the way to New Orleans, La., with the exception of in the vicinity of Black Lake Fleet in Lake Charles, La. A towboat sank last week near mile marker 245 (west of the Harvey Canal Lock), resulting in some restrictions. A salvage company was set to be on site over the weekend.
Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, said it’s hard to put a dollar amount on the impact of the closure between the Colorado Locks and the Brazos River.
“It’s a significant impact,” Stark said. “It will affect commerce and our companies who are trying to move crude oil and petroleum products on the canal.”
Tim Osborn, navigation manager for NOAA’s Central Gulf Region’s Office of Coast Survey, said the closure and recovery of the waterways along the Gulf Coast highlight how vital they are to the nation as a whole.
“This and Hurricane Irma are clearly showing how critical ports and waterways are to the nation,” he said. “With them shut down or restricted, the economy is taking a hit, as you can see at the gas pumps all across the nation.”