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 10, 2013 12:34PM
Commerce will need to ship by rail. Railroads  replaced the Erie canal as a prime mover of commercial traffic; and, until water levels resume to normal levels, railroads can handle the traffic.
Jan 10, 2013 12:39PM
Because of the drought over the last 2+ years, water tables are at there lowest in recent history. Rain water and run off has a tenancy to seek it's own level, thus seeping through the soil to reach and raise water tables. It will take a few years of good occasional rain to raise the water tables, and thus raise and maintain the river levels. 
Jan 10, 2013 1:01PM
I lived in Memphis in the 70s and 80s for about 20 years and I find it funny that the article did not mention that in the late early 80s the river was closed north of Vicksburg, MS for most of the summer due to lack of rain.  In fact you could have almost walked across the river from Memphis to West Memphis.  My father recalled that when he lived near the MS river as a child that the river was closed several times due to lack of water in the 20s and 30s.  Nothing new just a weather cycle.  Oh yea, i guess it could be George Bush's fault, just ask a Democrap.
Jan 10, 2013 12:30PM
We will hear about record lows now, and record flooding this spring.
They will say it will cost jobs in river freight, but if you look at what the addition of jobs will be to the rail system and trucking it seems more people will be employed by the use of Trucks and rail than with freighter.
In a time the economy is screaming for jobs, it would seem that the cost to keep up the waterways far exceeds the ability to create more jobs by not doing so.
A freighter may have a crew of 8, where as the people needed to support rail and trucking would surpass that number 10 fold if not more.
How many dinners would see an influx in truckers stopping everyday to eat and rest?
How much more fuel would be repairmen,repairmen and people to unload trucks and trains?
How much more revenue would be created by truckers and freight tolls?
Seems to me with the influx in taxes from fuel purchases it would benefit the state and federal road projects too.
I don't know, but it seems that using other means of transportation, that are quicker than river travel and more efficient, as well as beneficial to the economy as a whole, outweigh the cost of keeping these lanes open.
And maybe, just maybe, if we allowed the river to self manage itself, we would see less flooding every year.
Seems whenever the Army Corps is involved we are heading for more trouble than good.
I'm just saying...

Jan 10, 2013 12:13PM

We really haven't had that much rain/snow in Iowa and the moister that we do get is getting swallowed up by our more that dry land therefore there is not much run off...

Jan 10, 2013 12:51PM

90% of corn and soybean exports are barged down the Mississippi? What corn and soybeans exports? The same drought that turned the mighty river into a giant mud slide also crippled crop production last year nation wide. Large farms that still produced crops did so by irrigation, using the water that ultimately would have fed the river thereby contributing to its current state of trickle. How did crops from far away places, like Nebraska, get there in the first place? By rail. Same crops could have been transported, by rail, to the Great Lakes and or West coast for international shipping. Considering that extreme weather is predicted to get worse rather than better, perhaps processing facilities and additional rail should be built in these other regions as a contingency.  

Jan 10, 2013 12:39PM
We need a drought in Seattle ... it has rained for a month now
Jan 10, 2013 12:18PM
Clearly the fault of the Obama administration and their tactics to divert needed rain to swing-states and away from the more conservative heart of America.
Jan 10, 2013 1:11PM
Just another example of our so called leaders letting this nation go to hell.  Roads, bridges', buildings, levee's and now shipping lanes.  We work hard and pay taxes and they overspend on projects that help a small minority of  people who will help them get rich.  Let me know when you people have had enough and are willing to get off your fat backsides and do something!
Jan 10, 2013 1:14PM

The role of the Mississippi River in our economy is one of the nation's least understood secrets.  Ask anyone who works on it, it is a commercial cargo moving waterway and NOT a recreational stream.


The Corps of Engineers is doing everything it can right now to keep the river open using both Corps owned and private contractor equipment.  The problem everybody forgets or ignores is that the Corps of Engineers also has a boss, and it is called Congress.  Despite working for the people who LITERALLY make our money, the Corps is shackled by underfunded budgets that severely limit its ability to get the job done.  The men out there blowing out the rocks and dredging up the sand take pride in their work and strive to get it done right, but when the beancounters say "That's it, you're out of money," they have to quit.  The result is a hodgepodge of quick fixes at the crisis spots of the moment.


Don't blame the Corps for holding back the Missouri River and "allowing" the Mississippi to dry up.  Remember that they are only doing what their boss has ordered them to do.  No, President Obama and Congress did not cause the drought, but they ultimately are the ones who control how the Corps of Engineers wrestles with it.

Jan 10, 2013 1:05PM

I would be getting out the metal detector.......


Jan 10, 2013 12:45PM
The price of gas will probably go back up to $6.00/gallon.
Jan 10, 2013 12:13PM
Winmag3,  that drought is still happening.
Jan 10, 2013 12:28PM
But I thought man had conquered nature.
Jan 10, 2013 12:33PM
@ be oberg The Midwest has an all time record low for snow fall and pack.  Runoff this year could be drastically reduced.
Jan 10, 2013 12:24PM
How funny.  Need the federal govt to see the river stays open???  The river that runs through all those red states.
Jan 10, 2013 12:14PM
consider most runoff that feeds the river is now frozen. The supply of water is limited by lack of rain but also by snow not melting yet.
Jan 10, 2013 12:45PM
it could be full of ice and nothing could move
Jan 10, 2013 1:38PM

Read this post and current Army Corps reports if you want to know the cause of the problem.


I grew up on the Mississippi around Dubuque.  I sometimes tell people I was "born in the back seat of a canoe."

In 59 years, I have never seen as much of the bottom of the river as I do now.


Y'all blaming current politicians are just assinine.


Our problems began in the late 1940's when the Corps of Engineers began manipulating the course, depth and watershed areas of the river.   It is not a blame game.  It is a lack of forsight like so many of the things we have done in the name of "HARNESSING OUR NATURAL RESOURCES".


The first evidence of a problem was severe Spring flooding which they chose to control with dams and levies on the northern portion of the river;  which;  caused swift runoff on the northern portions of the river.  Spring flooding became severe further South on the river.  Then the levies and dredging were increased on the middle portions of the river.


We have destroyed the Mississippi's natural ability to regulate it's own levels, so that in Spring high water season, it drains much faster now.  In dry periods the destroyed watershed areas aren't there to enhance water levels.


We have essentially turned the river into a canal beyond our ability to control waterlevels in a drought.  Another lesson the hard way.


It is soooo sad to stare at river bottom where I used to fish and swim in 10 feet of water.

Jan 10, 2013 12:30PM
I live in the Quad Cities. We are still in a pretty severe drought. Very little snow so far, and hardly any rain. The temps have been so mild that there isn't much freezing along the tributaries, let alone the Mighty Mississip!  This past summer I worked on an organic farm where we couldn't keep crops alive with only one well available for drip irrigation.  The Japanese beetles overtook everything that smelled sweet to them. 

I believe that climate change is happening due to global warming.  I see the results first hand everyday.  Not sure what this growing season will bring, but I do know that we are sorely in need of water in the soil. 

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