Voice of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway
Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association Ensures Safe, Reliable and Efficient Gulf Coast Waterways
Without the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) — a navigable inland waterway that runs 1,050 miles from Brownsville, Texas to St. Marks, Florida and used primarily for barge transportation — may not exist. This inland system of channels and tributaries is vital for efficiently moving raw materials, by-products and finished goods between Gulf Coast ports and major industrial centers both inland and coastal. As the connecting link to the rest of the nation’s 18,000-mile inland waterway system, the GIWW connects the Gulf Coast to other ports as far north as Minnesota and as far east as Pennsylvania. In addition to providing access to materials that may not be available otherwise, the GIWW — and the companies that operate along the waterway — are important sources of jobs and revenues.
The story of the GICA began in 1905, when a convention of more than 200 business representatives met in Victoria, Texas, to discuss the feasibility, plans and final construction of an intracoastal canal from Brownsville, Texas, to Donaldsonville, Louisiana. “Those early visionaries recognized the economic benefits of the proposed waterway over existing railroad routes and came together in an effort to address the need to construct the waterway,” said Jim Stark, president of GICA.
During that meeting, they created the Interstate Inland Waterway League and pledged to build a continuous system that would tie together the 18,000 miles of navigable waters extending from the Great Lakes, through the Mississippi Valley, and along the Louisiana and Texas coastlines. The League later became the Intracoastal Canal Association of Louisiana and Texas, and finally, the GICA. The association successfully lobbied to pass the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1925, which authorized a continuous waterway between New Orleans and Galveston. Two years later, the authorization was extended to Corpus Christi and, in 1942, legislation provided for an enlarged channel from Florida to the Mexican border.
Today, the GIWW is the third busiest waterway in terms of tonnage (more than 112 million tons of cargo moved through the GIWW last year), trailing only the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. “The GIWW is unique because of its location astride key energy ports and production facilities that rely on the waterway for raw materials and feed stocks,” Stark said. “Additionally, the high value and nature of the cargo carried on the GIWW by barge is unique. Over 69 million tons of petroleum and petroleum products, and 23 million tons of chemicals, are transported each year. This accounts for a value of $90 billion worth of products.”
GICA, a not-for-profit trade association, acts as the voice of the GIWW. It does so by identifying, analyzing and addressing GIWW issues, educating association members and the public about the unique and critical GIWW system, advocating for adequate federal and state funding for maintenance and construction, leading the Gulf Coast Inland Waterways Joint Hurricane Team to prepare for and respond to Gulf storms, and more. GICA currently has about 200 members, including manufacturers, refineries, shippers, port authorities, utilities, city governments, shipyards, tow boat and barge operators, among others.
Currently, infrastructure is of the utmost important for GICA and its members. “Locks and dams up the rivers are old, outdated and, due to funding shortfalls, becoming less predictable and reliable,” Stark said. “In Louisiana and Texas, the GIWW has 15 locks or floodgates that directly impact navigation and timely shipping of cargo. The oldest in our system is the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lock, built in 1923. It should be replaced by a modern structure that can better handle today’s shipping.”
A recent successful project for GICA involved developing an alternate route for towboats to navigate between the east and west sides of the GIWW after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) closed the IHNC lock for three months to repair and replace gates and machinery. Without the lock, towboat captains would have to travel 14 days out of the way to get from east to west. Working with the USACE, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard, GICA led efforts to establish an alternate route, thereby saving time and money.
GICA leads the Gulf Coast Inland Waterways Joint Hurricane Team (JHT), which was formed after the devastating hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005. “Early in 2006, [the U.S. Coast Guard, USACE and the inland barge industry] formally agreed to work together to more fully develop lessons learned from past hurricane seasons and waterways management practices, with the goal of implementing an effective, consistent, safe and expeditious restoration of Gulf Coast maritime commerce following future storms,” Stark said.
GICA will continue to advocate for the GIWW as the nation focuses on infrastructure initiatives and work to bring value to its membership. Additionally, GICA will continue its work on Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Master Plan Framework Development Team. GICA represents inland maritime interests as plans work their way through the process. “Our industry clearly understands that the coast must be maintained,” Stark said. “Without a coast, there is no intracoastal. And Louisiana agreed that shipping through the GIWW was critically important to the economic health of the entire state. Thus, a partnership is in place to ensure balanced projects to protect and restore Louisiana’s coastal wetland and shores are brought forward, while maintaining navigation.” This kind of effort is not limited to Louisiana and GICA will assist and advise in a similar role as the USACE and Texas General Land Office move forward on plans to protect the Texas coast.