Falling water levels threaten Mississippi barges

Vital barge shipments have already been disrupted as an ongoing drought hits the key artery of the nation’s inland waterway system.

By Bruce Kennedy Jan 9, 2013 3:32PM

Downtown Minneapolis skyline & Mississippi River - Chris Andersen Photography, Flickr, Getty ImagesCommercial traffic along America's busiest waterway is in danger of grinding to a halt as a record drought continues across much of the U.S.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are keeping federal and state officials briefed on the state of the Mississippi River, which normally carries close to $3 billion in commodities every January.

But this month has been far from normal when it comes to water levels along the historic river.

Reuters reports the Corps has been dredging parts of the Mississippi for six months now to give barge traffic the "draft" or depth of nine feet needed by most commercial vessels.

They've also been working to remove rocks from the river bottom at a potential choke-point south of St. Louis, Mo., near the Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes, by the middle of January -- around the time the river is expected to reach dangerously low levels.

The Corps is also releasing water from some Midwestern lakes and reservoirs to keep water levels along the mid-Mississippi from dipping too low.

The University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute calls the Mississippi "the most critical artery" of America’s inland waterway system. The river, it notes, transports more than 90% of U.S. corn and soybean exports to the Gulf of Mexico. Many energy utilities also rely on river barge shipments of coal and oil.

Shipping organizations say the low water levels have hurt commercial traffic along the Mississippi for months, in some cases doubling transit times, reducing the size of barge shipments and cancelling some orders. And they’re looking for continued assistance from the federal government to keep those water levels up.

"If a barge has a 14-day transit time from loading to the low points on the river, barge operators and their customers must make plans based on the forecasted water depth at the time of the barge’s arrival at the bottleneck," Michael Toohey, CEO of Waterways Council, said in a press statement. "That is why longer-term assurance that barges can reliably load to a 9-foot draft even beyond January is absolutely critical."

According to the Council and the American Waterways Operators, Mississippi River supply chain disruptions for the month of January alone could affect more than 8,000 jobs and more than $54 million in wages and benefits -- as well as the transportation of 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion.

Disruption of Mississippi River commercial traffic is already having a ripple effect across the nation’s transportation sector.

USA Today reports that 15 river barges can carry the same amount of freight as 215 rail cars or 1,050 large tractor trailers.

And Seeking Alpha says railroad companies like CSX (CSX), Kansas City Southern (KSU) and Union Pacific (UNP)  are "waiting in the wings" to see how much more demand for their services will increase, as the water levels along the Mississippi continue to drop.

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Jan 15, 2013 11:02PM
Clearly, we need more armed guards along the banks of the Mississippi to protect this vital resource.
This is a clear OPPORTUNITY for a Entrepeneur.  


We could put about a million people to work cleaning up the Carp and other invasive species in the river.


All you have to do is run a motor over the water and they will fly out onto land. Just collect them and make cat food out of them or fillet them and send them to China.

The Environmentalist should be happy the river is dry.   That is the method of getting all that coal shipped to the electric generating facilities.
Jan 10, 2013 5:47PM

That tells me the river has been steeling a lot of rail and trucking JOBS

Jan 10, 2013 3:45PM
Frozen water blocking the upper Mississippi River.   We NEED more GLOBAL WARMING NOW.
Jan 10, 2013 2:36PM
I am just curious... with the Oceans rising is there not anyway that they can divert some of that water into the river to raise the levels.  This is a serious question, I am not an engineer and really dont know but it would seem to reason that there would be some way to do so.
Jan 10, 2013 2:31PM
There is little disagreement that changes in sea surface temperatures have large influences on land precipitation.  The influence of El Niño-Southern Oscillation on drought over land has been shown in several studies.  Research by Dr. Aiguo Dai with the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows "severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas resulting from either decreased precipitation and/or increased evaporation."   The culprit?  CO2.  Science has known since the mid-19th century increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere will raise world temperatures.  They just didn't know how much.  Now we are looking at the prospect of a stream where the Mississippi once ran in the next 30 years.  So are we trading jobs provided by the Mississippi for jobs in the oil, gas and coal industry?  It's your choice.  Shrug your shoulders and go about your business or do something. <div><img alt="" id="DCSIMG" width="1" height="1" src="//statse.webtrendslive.com/dcs0zztfg00000s969s37qoal_2f6z/njs.gif?dcsuri=/nojavascript&WT.js=No&WT.tv=8.6.0" /></div>
Jan 10, 2013 2:30PM
Time to invest in rail and truck transport

Jan 10, 2013 2:28PM

where has the obama administration been as this developes. Golfing, Vacationing, basicly doing absolutly nothing at all while the country bleeds to death. what a real leader. here goes more jobs, Who is going to pay for the welfare and unemployment checks in the blue states now.

Jan 10, 2013 2:27PM
It'll be a good time to be a trucker.
Jan 10, 2013 2:19PM
The Great Lakes could end up in the same boat since much commerce is transported through them to the Chicago Waterway and beyond, and our lakes are near historic lows also.  I, like many in the Great Lakes states, would like to see this Waterway closed as it is bringing in invasive species like the Asian Carp (think huge flying fi**** sad that commerce has to ruin the eco system (many trash species have already invaded our Great Lakes through the discharge of ocean-going cargo ships' ballast water). These invaders compete for food and change the balance of nature in the Lakes.
Jan 10, 2013 2:08PM

No worries. If no rain.. no crops..corn soybeans etc.  There will be no need to ship them. Might have the need for fuel to plant the crops but nothing needed to harvest them. Things will quietly  shut down.  If there's a good crop there will be rain to replenish the river too. The river will take care of itself !

This drought is far from being over !

Jan 10, 2013 2:06PM
Looks like Buffets RR investments will be paying off big time. First he had Obama squash the XL pipeline so the rail cars could transport the crude, now mother nature is creating opportunities for rail transport.. No wonder why railcar demand is so high and order boards for their manufacture are so rosey. Kudos to Buffet and other rail freight investors.
Jan 10, 2013 1:55PM

 it is really amazing to see the river at such a low level, there are many barges that are not being used and they are tied onto moorings at the waters edge, many are completely out of the water since the water has receeded. Tilted at odd surreal angles along the banks, many have been unused for months, and from the looks of things, with the continued drought, it will probably get a lot worse before it gets better. 

 there was rain in the forecast today, it hadn't rained in weeks, there was the expectation of some substantial rains, but when the clouds came in, the clouds produced scarcely more than a drizzle.


 Millions of trees died in the heat of 2012, as well as tens of millions of fish, there is a sturdy strain of mosquito which has been proliferating since the fish died off, it is some kind of aggressive sturdy little thing, a "tiger mosquito", it doesn't just bite in the mornings and evenings like the "old" mosquito, this one feeds during daylight, and at night, and spreads a disease called the "west nile virus".

 There are a lot of things happening other than just the water levels going down.


Jan 10, 2013 1:53PM
What this country Really needs is fewer billion dollar war machines and more dredging machines.! Hello.. Anybody out there?
Jan 10, 2013 1:52PM
if they keep dredging the water level will be lower and lower ,its not rocket science .
Jan 10, 2013 1:50PM
If you want to fix the water table problem, here's a start: stop watering your lawns. Grass is by far the number 1 most irrigated "crop" in the U.S. and it draws enormous amounts of water from the underground resevoirs. Until the tables get full, there will be no runoff to the river.
Jan 10, 2013 1:44PM

I used to remember how many lock/dams are on the river....#11 at Dubuque.  Someone mentioned below about continueing the system down river.......


That may be the only way to guarentee sufficient levels.  I don't know if it's possible to design barges with less draught and higher capacity.


And that sounds exactly like what we have turned the river into....a canal.

Jan 10, 2013 1:39PM
As a loyal Minnesotan and American, I pledge to pee in the river every chance I get until this problem is resolved.  Or at least into its tributary, the Rum River.  I would urge all my fellow Minnesotans to do the same.
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