The U.S. inland waterways and river system, which connects the nation’s interior to coastal ports — and the rest of the world — covers
more than 10,000 miles in the nation’s heartland. More
than 880 million tons of cargo passes through these
waterways each year, worth more than $400 billion to
the U.S. economy, according to the Coast Guard.
Leading the inland waterways mission is the service’s
Eighth District, based in New Orleans. Service officials
there said the Panama Canal expansion project could
bring even more vessel traffic to those waterways.
“We can only gather that its completion will provide
greater coastal port access to larger ships carrying even
more cargo. We can further project a greater need for
tow and barges to transship those goods to and from the
interior of the United States,” said Capt. Paul Dittman,
director of western rivers for the Eighth District.
Currently, the largest ships that can pass through
the canal have a capacity of 4,500 twenty-foot equiva-
lent units, but the nearly $6 billion
expansion project will more than
double that maximum capacity.
This additional workload may
increase Coast Guard activity on
the waterways, but Dittman said
the service would employ the full
suite of prevention and response
capabilities in a risk-based fashion.
“As always, we will continue to
work closely with industry to stay
aware of maritime trends and then
employ our resources in mission
areas of greatest need,” he said.
Warmer weather, which historically brings with it heavy rainfall
and flooding, is yet another challenge.
“The inland waterway system
sees its fair share of high- and
low-water events,” the captain said.
High water along the Mississippi from snow melt in
January and March flooding from storms in Texas and
Louisiana already tested the service’s abilities to keep
commerce moving safely.
“During extreme high and low water, navigation
becomes exponentially more difficult and the risk of
marine casualties — vessel collisions, barge breakaways
and vessel groundings — is significantly increased,”
The Eighth District handles more than 70 percent of
inland vessel traffic in the United States each year. Its
navigable waterways are a unique resource shared by
26 states. Several of the most trafficked waterway systems in the country — including the Mississippi River
System and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways — are in
the Eighth District, as are seven of the 10 busiest ports
in the United States.
The service works closely with the Army Corps
of Engineers to enhance the safety of waterway navi-
Open for Commerce
Coast Guard keeps waterways, rivers passable, safe, profitable
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Special Correspondent
Maintaining the Flow
The U.S. inland waterways and river system sees 880 million tons
of cargo each year, and more than 70 percent of the U.S. vessel
traffic passes through the Coast Guard’s Eighth District.
n Several of the most trafficked waterway systems in the
country — including the Mississippi River System and the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterways — are in the Eighth District, as are seven
of the 10 busiest ports in the United States.
n With the warmer summer weather comes rain and subsequent
flooding, which poses a challenge for commerce and the Coast
Guard on inland waterways.
n The Panama Canal expansion project is nearly complete, and
the Coast Guard anticipates more vessel traffic on the inland
waterways as a result of larger ships passing through the canal
with substantially more cargo.