Canal widening could be complete next month|[01/06/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 6, 2008

The widening of the Yazoo River Diversion Canal, a project long seen as a must to keep the Port of Vicksburg viable for business expansion but historically plagued by funding and other delays, is now scheduled to be complete by the end of next month.

The February completion date for the $5.3 million endeavor, which has been on the drawing board for more than 10 years, is a month later than had been predicted this summer.

Phillip Hollis, a senior project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who had predicted a January conclusion when interviewed in July, said high river stages delayed the initial dredging of the canal this summer, and recently, high waters have threatened progress once again.

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“It (the high river stage) has definitely been a factor, but we’re still currently dredging,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that you have to expect to deal with.”

Hollis said the newer of the project’s two dredges has been able to continue operation since the river stage has stayed below 31 feet. The highest river stage during recent high waters was 28.6 feet, on Dec. 28 and 29.

The second dredge won’t be used until the river stage is 21 or lower. Both dredges are being operated by the Cleveland, Miss.,-based 4-H Construction with assistance from Inland Dredging of Dyersburg, Tenn.

On Saturday, the river had fallen to 22.2 feet at the Vicksburg gauge, down from 22.9 on Friday, but Lester Cruse, port captain at Magnolia Marine Transport, was unsure if the water would continue to drop at the same rate. Therefore, he declined to predict when the 21-foot mark might be reached.

“It’s a tough thing to predict,” Cruse said Thursday. “All of this water is coming down from flooding around the Ohio River, and that’s expected to slow down sometime soon. But then again, it’s supposed to rain up around Memphis soon. You just never know.”

Delays in the canal-widening project go back well beyond the recent high waters.

Officials began looking to widen the canal in the early 1990s, when the tonnage moved to and from the Mississippi River and E.W. Haining Industrial Center increased from 3 million to 5 million tons. But a lack of funding kept the project on the drawing board.

Then in 2006, the City of Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously voted to begin acquiring land for the widening, but all three bids from construction companies came in too high. Such options as going back to Congress to lobby for more money or scaling back the project by deleting work north of the Glass Bayou became possibilities.

Finances for the undertaking began improving in October when the county, agreeing to pay $56,168 more of the $3.6 million total cost, helped bridge a funding gap of about $150,000, depending on the City of Vicksburg securing funds from Community Development Block Grant sources for its share, which it did just days later.

The project continued to take shape in January 2007, when Warren County board members informally gave District 5 Supervisor Richard George, board president, authority to release $15,000 to $18,000 being held in escrow to close the purchase on the 7.23 acres of land in anticipation of widening the canal.

The canal’s construction also received a boost in February when President Bush signed a $464 billion spending bill that closed out 2006’s unfinished budget business, which helped cover a $615,000 shortfall in the project if Congress failed to act on the resolution.

Finally in March, the bid for the canal-widening project was awarded to 4-H Construction.

Construction crews have been in motion along the canal since early July, beginning with clearing the landscape on Desoto Island. The dredging began a few weeks later. Hollis said dredging the canal includes excavating the canal’s soil with the dredges’ cutter heads, and then pumping the soil to the mouth of the canal and into the Mississippi River.

He explained that the project calls for the expansion of the canal dug by the Corps about 105 years ago. The 150-foot-wide canal will be widened to 250 feet from the canal’s junction with the Mississippi River to Glass Bayou, about 1 1/2 miles north. Then from Glass Bayou to the Vicksburg Harbor, which is a little less than a mile, the canal would gradually decrease to 200 feet wide.

“The project’s purpose is to allow four-barge tows to travel the canal in all river conditions, which is not the case right now,” Hollis said.

Tows generally can push one or two barges on the canal now, depending on the river stage.

Hollis said traffic in the canal has not been disrupted by the dredging and should not be during the remainder of the work.