Higher river stages delay completion of canal widening|[02/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 29, 2008

The widening of the Yazoo River Diversion Canal, to be completed by today, will continue into March and beyond due to higher river stages than expected.

The $5.3 million project, planned for at least a decade to make the Port of Vicksburg more viable for expansion, started last summer and work has been around the clock when water levels permitted.

“It’s just one of those things that hasn’t cooperated with us,” said Phillip Hollis, a senior project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But there’s nothing you can do about Mother Nature. We’re still dredging, just not at the pace we would like to be.”

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Hollis had predicted a late-February conclusion to the endeavor about two months ago. When interviewed in July, he had given a January completion date.

River stages above 35 feet on the Mississippi gauge at Vicksburg have been the norm this week. According to Hollis, the newer of the contractor’s two dredges has continued operation, even though the ideal river stage for that dredge’s use is about 31 feet. However, Hollis added, Inland Dredging of Tennessee, which owns the newer dredge, was expected to wrap its portion of the project Thursday night and would be leaving.

That means only a second dredge, which won’t be operational until the river stage is down to 24 feet, will be available. The second dredge belongs to the Cleveland, Miss.,-based 4-H Construction, the primary contractor of the project.

Lester Cruse, port captain at Magnolia Marine Transport, said the River Industry Bulletin Board predicted the 24-foot mark wouldn’t come until March 16.

“These predictions change everyday, so it’s hard to say exactly when the water’s going to drop,” Cruse said. “But it’s looking like it’s going to be a couple weeks.”

The canal, excavacated more than a century ago, passes City Front and links the harbor industries to the main Mississippi channel. The more traffic the canal can accommodate, the better for shippers.

The Mississippi always rises in the spring, but this year stages went up earlier than normal.

After the stage lowers to an operational level, Hollis said construction crews would need about three weeks to finish the remaining dredge work, which includes excavating the canal’s soil with cutter heads and then pumping the soil to the mouth of the canal and into the Mississippi River.

“And then there’s still some landscaping and erosion-prevention work that needs to be done,” Hollis said.

At the project’s end, the 150-foot-wide canal will be widened to 250 feet from its junction with the Mississippi 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. Right now, tows generally can push one or two barges on the canal now, depending on the river stage.

Widening the canal has been on the drawing boards of officials since 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. However, funding shortages kept the project at bay.

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 deleting portions of the project became possibilities.

Finances began improving in October 2006 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 accomplished just days later.

Progress continued 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.

A little more than a year ago, the project received yet another boost when President Bush signed a $464 billion spending bill that closed out unfinished 2006 budget business, helping cover a $615,000 shortfall in the project if Congress failed to act on the resolution.

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