On July 31, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Louisiana signed an agreement to deepen the Lower Mississippi River from 45 feet to 50 feet. The project is expected to provide a 50-foot draft from the Port of Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico over 256 miles of the Mississippi River. As a result, the Lower Mississippi River will have deep draft access at the ports at Baton Rouge, New Orleans, South Louisiana, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines. In addition, according to the Port of New Orleans, the material dredged from the first 30 miles of the project near the mouth of the Mississippi River will restore an estimated 1,462 acres of critical marsh habitat. The Port of New Orleans adds that “Phase 1 of the project will provide a 50-foot channel from the Gulf of Mexico through Southwest Pass to Belmont Crossing and open up approximately 175 miles of the ship channel to the deeper draft, encompassing the entire jurisdiction of Port NOLA.”
The project is part of race to the bottom by global ports as they seek to accommodate the added container cargo capacity and significantly deeper drafts of “Post-Panamax” vessels. When the expansion of the Panama Canal was announced in 2007, most American East and Gulf Coast ports concluded that their current infrastructure capacity and performance would place them at a competitive disadvantage. On the Gulf Coast, Gulfport, New Orleans, Mobile, and Houston currently have maximum berth depths of 45 feet (14 meters) or less. The increased berth depth in the Lower Mississippi River will put it on equal footing with the Port of New York and New Jersey and Port of Miami, each dredged to 50 feet in 2014. When completed, the project should make the Port of New Orleans the deepest port on the Gulf Coast, and deeper than many of its peers on the Eastern Seaboard.