Waterways experience advances Corps/Brazil partnership

Barges travel Brazil’s Rio São Francisco only while the water remains deep and the channels stay clear. Trucks take on the movement of goods upon the arrival of the dry season. (Photo courtesy of Lucio Mauro, CODEVASF)

Barges travel Brazil’s Rio São Francisco only while the water remains deep and the channels stay clear. Trucks take on the movement of goods upon the arrival of the dry season. (Photo courtesy of Lucio Mauro, CODEVASF)


By Amy Echols, Public Affairs Office

Jon Gornick, Portland District waterways expert, explores the beaches of Brazil, smartly heeding the shark risk signs. (Photo provided by Jon Gornick, Channels and Harbors Project)

Jon Gornick, Portland District waterways expert, explores the beaches of Brazil, smartly heeding the shark risk signs. (Photo provided by Jon Gornick, Channels and Harbors Project)

Dredging experience and a love for travel and other cultures took Portland District’s Jon Gornick far from home last year. A civil engineer in the Waterways Maintenance Section, Gornick joined a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team working in a unique partnership with the Brazilian government for a 120-day assignment. The team’s goal:  develop a dredging program for a navigable stretch of the 1,811-mile São Francisco River.

Rain, deforestation, excessive agricultural use and the construction of a dam create large variations in river depth, influence the river’s flow and create sand banks that hinder navigation. Barges ply the river but inconsistent and incomplete maintenance dredging make the São Francisco too shallow during the dry season, forcing the movement of most goods by truck on poor quality two-lane highways. An adequate channel in the São Francisco would take a significant amount of the cargo off the highways while potentially reducing transportation costs for goods, such as soy and cotton grown on large farms along the waterway.

The partnership project between the Corps and CODEVASF, the government agency responsible for waterway development on the Rio São Francisco is in its second year and based in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. A 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries brought decades of Corps’ waterways engineering knowledge to Brazil to assist in hydraulic modeling, dredging and other river engineering aspects on the fourth longest river in South America.

As in jobs and travel, flexibility comes in handy.

“My assignment was to visit an active dredging operation, make observations, identify navigation problems and make recommendations for a long term dredging plan to bring this river in central Brazil into a sustainable, navigable condition for barge traffic,” Gornick describes. “This approach took an unexpected turn when the dredge sank before I could get out and see it working.”

The Rio São Francisco basin (dark lines on map) covers approximately 243,700 square miles, providing hydropower and irrigation for eastern and northeastern Brazil. In comparison, the Columbia River Basin covers approximately 260,000 square miles.

The Rio São Francisco basin (dark lines on map) covers approximately 243,700 square miles, providing hydropower and irrigation for eastern and northeastern Brazil. In comparison, the Columbia River Basin covers approximately 260,000 square miles.

“My trip to see the dredge came later in my assignment. In the interim, I spent weeks pouring over documents, many in Portuguese, to learn about the river and how it’s been maintained historically for navigation. Google Translate became a close friend.”

Gornick made a number of site visits to the river to understand the river system before making recommendations. Along the way, he discovered that ground travel presents its own memorable challenges.

“During my first field trip to the river, as part of a fact-finding mission, the clutch in our truck gave out about an hour outside Brasilia,” recalls Gornick. “Luckily, we could jam it into a lower gear while on a hill and the truck limped into a nearby small town where we waited for six hours for a replacement vehicle. Otherwise, we would likely have been robbed because that type of crime is quite common out on the open road.”

Larger challenges on the project extend into geographic and political jurisdictions, diverse funding sources and competing and complex interests. Unlike the United States, Brazil does not have a single agency like the Corps that is responsible for maintenance dredging of the country’s waterways. Instead, several agencies are involved in maintenance of the São Francisco and, typically, funding for dredging is not timely. This makes planning a dredging program very difficult.

The Brazilian army and its boat took Gornick and others on the team to distinct river reaches where signs along the riverbanks indicate on which side of the river to navigate and where to cross to the other side. The team reviewed areas undergoing hydraulic modeling that could aid in locating structures to reduce shoaling in the navigation channel. These observations led Gornick to his primary recommendation that the river needs a defined channel alignment.

“Large questions face the country, however. For example, if they build a sustainable channel, will it be fully utilized? How will they maintain this system among competing national interests?” Gornick muses. “In addition, there are non-navigable dams on the lower São Francisco River, so it’s not just about adequate waterways; road and rail infrastructure need upgrading as well.”

“Over the months in Brasilia, I gained some proficiency in Portuguese, which is great because I love languages, and I love traveling and getting to know the world. The Brazilians showed great hospitality, both professionally and personally. They are warm people and they extended invitations to explore the city and socialize with their families, which allowed me to immerse myself in their culture,” Gornick states.

As an engineer, Gornick witnessed a huge commitment by CODEVASF to improve navigation and he believes that a Corps-like agency would serve the country well. Personally, he found transferring knowledge to help Brazil move forward was his greatest contribution.

Calvin Creech, the Corps’ project manager in Brazil, confirms Gornick’s value to the CODEVASF project. “Jon was a great asset to our Brazil program and we believe his dredging strategies and recommendations will have a long lasting benefit to commerce in the region.”

Jon Gornick (2nd from left) cruises the Rio São Francisco with Rafael Siqueira from CODEVASF (left), Calvin Creech, Corps project manager from Mobile District (right) and Waleska Echevarria, a hydraulic engineer from Buffalo District. (Photo courtesy of Calvin Creech, Mobile District)

Jon Gornick (2nd from left) cruises the Rio São Francisco with Rafael Siqueira from CODEVASF (left), Calvin Creech, Corps project manager from Mobile District (right) and Waleska Echevarria, a hydraulic engineer from Buffalo District. (Photo courtesy of Calvin Creech, Mobile District)