Drought continues to affect inland barge operators

Barge operators on the Mississippi River System have battled to stay afloat this summer as drought conditions approach the devastation of 1988.

With little significant rain, groundings have caused temporary closures, one-way traffic has become common, tow sizes and barge loadings have been decreased and stress levels for vessel crews have increased. The drought — a stark contrast to last year’s floods -— is hitting operators’ bottom lines, and the gloomy crop outlook threatens to do more damage into the fall.

“It’s tough, but we’re dealing with it,” said Roger Harris, senior vice president of operations, Magnolia Marine Transport Co., Vicksburg, Miss. “It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

 The river was especially hazardous between Cairo, Ill., and Vicksburg, with serious problems in 10 locations, according to the American Waterways Operators. In early August at Vicksburg, for example, the river was at 4.14′ versus a record high of 57.10′ in last year’s floods. Memphis, Tenn., was at 7.9′ below normal river levels, near the record low of 10.70′ below set in 1988.

Buoy lines were being set for 11′ instead of 12′ to maintain channel widths in the Lower Mississippi from around Lock and Dam 22 north of St. Louis (mile marker 303) to New Madrid, Mo., north of Memphis (marker 869). The industry was recommending drafts no greater than 9′ in both directions and northbound tows limited to 15 loaded barges — 36 total — configured three wide by five long in the center. That’s down from 20 loaded barges earlier in the summer. The southbound limit was 25 barges, down from 30. Tows on the Lower Mississippi normally average 30-45 barges. Reducing the draft by a foot means a loss of 204 tons of cargo capacity per barge, AWO said. 

 In July alone, there were 24 groundings over the same length of the river, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Brandon McMillan in Memphis.

The drought and smaller harvest could cost the inland river grain industry — from farmers to barge companies — more than $100 million, said Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, transportation, Informa Economics, Memphis. Estimated daily idling costs for a downbound grain tow could total $20,000 or more. Spot rates of $13.17 per metric ton to move grain from St. Louis to the central Gulf were up about 28 percent from a year ago.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported steadily worsening crop conditions. In early August, 39 percent of soybeans were rated very poor to poor, surpassing the 1988 record of 37 percent. Fifty percent of corn got the lowest rating, just below the 53 percent peak in 1988, when more than 4,000 barges were stranded at a cost to the barge industry of about $1 billion.

  “We’re concerned about the grain harvest with the drought,” said Dave O’Loughlin, vice president, dry cargo customer service, Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn., which moves about 100 million tons of dry bulk cargo annually, accounting for one sixth of the industry total. “We’re using more barges, more fuel, more manpower to move the same amount of tons.”

Kirby Corp., the nation’s largest domestic tank barge operator, estimates the drought has cost it about $500,000 a month in reduced cargo capacity and delays. Continued shoaling will mean dredging-related delays and high velocity currents as the river narrows.

Merritt Lane, president and CEO of Canal Barge Co., New Orleans, said the situation was too fluid to put a number on. “We’re charging by the ton. If we’re not moving the tons and not moving tons efficiently, it really affects the bottom line,” he said. “We had times where we’re standing by and not making headway, and the only thing that’s going to correct this is more water.”

As for how difficult navigation is, Lane said, “We were reminded dutifully by our port captain that the guys have a lot of stress navigating a narrow channel. Fortunately, we’ve got really experienced guys.”

Five dredges were working on the Mississippi and a few were working on tributaries, said Corps of Engineers spokesman Bob Anderson in Vicksburg. “Possibly, we could bring one additional dredge on to help us with harbor dredging,” he said.

Lynn Muench, AWO’s senior vice president, regional advocacy, said the Corps is trying to do the best it can, “but the industry is a little frustrated that they’re not doing more proactive dredging.”  

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