As the calendar flips to 2013, the drought of 2012 continues to linger in Iowa and a wide area of the Midwest. Lack of rain is affecting water levels on the Mississippi River, which are expected to keep dropping over the next several weeks unless we get much needed rain or an awful lot of melting snow. Barge shipping of grain down the river to New Orleans and movement of fertilizer up the river to Iowa, Illinois and points north are being hindered by the shallow water levels on the Mississippi.
On December 27, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told shippers that the Mississippi River could be closed to barge traffic as soon as next week. The river must be at least 9 feet deep to maintain a channel for barge shipping. The latest forecasts indicate that the water could fall below that required minimum depth on January 3 or 4 in the area of Thebes, Ill., a tiny town along the river about 125 miles south of St. Louis, Mo.
Last week, contractors began working in that area of the river, a six mile stretch near Thebes, to remove rock pinnacles from the river bottom in an effort to keep the waterway open to barge traffic.
Months of drought have left water levels as much as 20 feet below normal
Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council Inc., said on December 27 the federal government must act now to avoid economic disaster on the river. Grain shippers have been pushing for more water from big dams on the northern reaches of the Missouri River to be released so that it flows into the Mississippi to keep the water level higher. The Army Corps of Engineers has resisted that request because it would cause problems for people and the environment upstream.
The Coast Guard has said barge traffic will likely be restricted further if the river’s depth dips to 9 feet. The river’s depth at St. Louis on December 12 was 12 feet.
Months of drought have left water levels as much as 20 feet below normal along a 180 mile stretch of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. which is the town at the southern tip of Illinois along the Mississippi River. The low water problem was worsened last month when the Army Corps of Engineers cut the outflow from the big dam at Yankton, S.D., on the upper Missouri River by two thirds. Thus, less water is flowing into the Mississippi from the Missouri River.
Barges on Mississippi River are carrying lighter loads because of shallow water
Barges on the Mississippi River are already carrying half to three-quarter loads and some barge operators say they’ll halt shipping if they face more restrictions from reduced water levels. Iowa State University Extension economist Chad Hart says a prolonged stoppage of shipping on the Mississippi could have an economic impact reaching into the billions of dollars, with a halt in movement of ag products such as grain and fertilizer, coal, petroleum and other goods that rely on the river for transportation.
Aggravating the situation with low water levels are those submerged rock formations that are now getting in the way as tow-boats pushing barges try to navigate the shallow waters. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers says the Corps removed many of the rock pinnacles in the river between St. Louis and the southern tip of Illinois more than 20 years ago. But sonar technology wasn’t as advanced back then as it is now, so the Corps missed some of the rock formations when they did that work in the 1980s.
Complicating this situation are rock pinnacles affecting barge traffic
Last week contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the work of removing the rock pinnacles in the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill.. The rock removal operations will ensure the river channel will be safe to navigate should the water levels on the river drop further, according to Major General John Peabody, commander of the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, who spoke at a press briefing December 24. Corps officials have said they are “cautiously optimistic” there will be no significant disruptions to navigation on the Mississippi River this winter due to low water levels. They’ve said if there is any interruption to shipping, it will be short in duration.
“Due to the 2012 drought and historical low water levels on the river, the rock pinnacles have emerged and their presence reduces the depth and width of the shipping channel used by barges,” says Mike Peterson, a Corps spokesman at St. Louis. Rock pinnacles can damage barges when water levels drop too low.
Corps has hired two companies to remove the rock pinnacles from the river
The Corps in mid-December agreed to expedite the removal process of the rock pinnacles in order to mitigate the negative effects on navigation. The Corps has hired Newt Marine of Dubuque, Iowa, and Kokosing Construction Company, an Ohio firm, to rid a six mile stretch of the river of the rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill. That town is across the river and not too far from Cape Girardeau, Mo.
The Corps also recently released some water from a reservoir located on the Kaskaskia River which is on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The Kaskaskia empties into the Mississippi south of St. Louis. The Corps released the water from Carlyle Lake, which flows into the Kaskaskia River, to raise the water level in the Mississippi River to support navigation over the rock pinnacles and in areas in need of dredging on the Mississippi River. The amount of water released raised the river level about 6 inches, and that won’t last long. The barge shipping industry has indicated that the water released has helped, but isn’t sufficient to avert a shutdown.
Shippers and farm groups are asking the Corps to release water from dams
Meanwhile, the barge industry, grain shippers, the Fertilizer Institute, American Farm Bureau and commodity groups such as the American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association are continuing to ask the Corps to release more water from the big reservoirs on the upper reaches of the Missouri River. They say that water is needed during the time when the rock pinnacle removal work occurs, to allow continued movement of barge traffic and shipping of the nation’s basic commodities.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said in a press conference last week that the Obama administration has assured him “every option is on the table” if blasting away the rock pinnacles fails to keep the Mississippi River open for barge traffic. Those options may include getting the White House to tell the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the flow of water from the big dams in South Dakota and Montana on the northern stretch of the Missouri River, thus increasing the flow into the Mississippi River. The blasting of the rock pinnacles and removing them from the river will likely take 60 days, which means January and February.
Fertilizer supplies for spring are a concern with river shipping slowed down
Of course, winter weather is another uncertain factor. A National Weather Service hydrologist said last week that as the weather turns colder and freezes the Mississippi River and the Missouri River to the north, that would likely further reduce the amount of water flowing downstream and could lower water levels even further.
What about the railroads? People involved in the grain shipping and fertilizer industries in Iowa and Illinois say they don’t expect rail will bail them out. The railcar capacity simply doesn’t exist, particularly for moving UAN and anhydrous ammonia fertilizer from the south where it is manufactured to the northern areas such as Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
If Mother Nature doesn’t begin pouring rain on the Midwest soon, this shallow river shipping problem could extend well into 2013 and fertilizer could become difficult to secure this coming spring. As for grain shipping, barges ship a lot more grain south to New Orleans during the year than the railroads do. There aren’t enough railcars to make up the difference for grain shipping and fertilizer shipping if barges are stopped, says Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association.