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Dale-100x140 Barge operators: Send us some rain!


October 30, 2012

Too bad the East Coast couldn’t send some of Hurricane Sandy’s water to the drought-weary Midwest. Barge traffic on the Mississippi River, especially around St. Louis, could use some help straight through to next year.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s recent outlook showed that the drought would linger for much of the Midwest and mountain states through Jan. 31. The outlook also said to expect some improvement in Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas along the Mississippi.

An especially worrisome part for barge traffic is the stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. “We’re going to be in a bad place in December unless we start getting rain,” said Lynn Muench of the American Waterways Operators. Drafts may need to be as shallow as 5’6” to 6’ instead of the current drought-induced 9’6”.

The Army Corps of Engineers typically reduces flows from the Missouri River in December. There’s little hope that might change.

“The Missouri River is not authorized to provide navigation for the Mississippi River,” said Corps spokesman Romanda Walker. “We are looking at other options for dredging or removing rocks to help keep the river open.”

What’s more, the Missouri basin is having drought problems of its own. September saw record low inflows of just under 0.3 million-acre feet into the main reservoir system, compared to the previous record of 0.4 million feet in 1919, the Corps said. Missouri River basin records go back to 1898.

From December through February at Gavins Point reservoir near Yankton, S.D., releases will be 12,000-cu.-ft. per second versus 17,000 cfs when reservoirs are full.

“Most likely, we will begin the 2013 navigation season with reduced navigation flow support,” Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri Water Management Division, said in a statement.

Companies like Kirby Corp., the giant Houston-based tank barge operator, are well aware of the reduced flows. During a third-quarter earnings call last week, CEO Joe Pyne noted the potential problem. “There are a number of things that can be done, and I think that the industry and the Corps are looking at all of them.”

But, he said, “it would all go away if it would just rain.”

Indeed.

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