Flooding to affect barge operators

Workboat operators are bracing for economic upheaval along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as near record flooding is slowing or stopping barge traffic in various locations along the system. The full economic fallout won’t be known for some time because it will take weeks for the rivers to return to normal.

Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, transportation, Informa Economics, Memphis, Tenn., said daily idling costs could total $20,000 to $25,000 for a grain-carrying downbound tow.

The river crested Tuesday in Memphis at 48′, well below the record set in 1937 of 60.21′. Good news for many, but it won’t make the revenue hit on barge operators any easier to take.

See video here of the conditions in Memphis, including footage of a barge tow being pushed by a Marquette Transportation towboat. 

Joe Pyne, CEO of Kirby Corp., Houston, told analysts that the high water could impact future earnings results by two to seven cents a share. “It could very well be the latter part of the second quarter before we see conditions return to normal,” he said.

Some barge tows are only being allowed to travel during the day, and with less barges, while others are having issues with bridge clearance. Coal shipments to coal-firing plants have been delayed, but coal stockpiles are currently sufficient so no interruptions are expected in the short term. Barge traffic along the McClellen-Kerr Arkansas River has virtually stopped, according to officials at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma. Port officials expect at least a slowdown in barge traffic for another 20 days.

“I’ve been in this business 28 years and I have not seen anything like this,” said Jerry Knapper of Ingram Barge Co. in Nashville, Tenn.

Downriver, the National Weather Service was expecting more flooding as the river rolled south to New Orleans, predicting a crest of 56’ in mid-May at Helena, Ark., south of Memphis. Flood stage is 44’. At Vicksburg, Miss., the water level was recorded at 51.90′ on Monday, almost nine inches above flood stage. The river isn’t expected to crest there until May 20.

“This is probably the most challenging one I can remember,” said Walter Blessey, CEO of tank barge operator Blessey Marine Services, Harahan, La.

Because of the extreme flood conditions in late April, the Corps of Engineers blew up a levee to save an Illinois town. The Corps blasted a hole in a portion of the levee at the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in southeast Missouri to keep from inundating Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio and Mississippi meet. The gauge there was at 61.72’, higher than the 1937 record of 59.66’. As a result, 133,000 acres of Missouri farmland were flooded.

In New Orleans, the Corps is taking similar action. Instead of blowing holes in the levee system, the agency has opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway to release Mississippi River water and is expected to open the Morganza Floodway, located about 40 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, La., on May 12 if the Mississippi River Commission approves the request. This would be the first time the Morganza has had to open since 1973.

Operation of the Morganza Floodway is outlined in the Corps Master Water Control Manual. In extreme high water events, not operating the structure would cause the entire Mississippi River system to exceed its design capacity. The Mississippi River is continuing to swell at near historic levels not seen since 1927.

The Corps released a map on May 7 showing the anticipated impact from operation of the floodway. Though operating the structure will keep New Orleans high and dry, towns will be flooded as water makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between five and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation,” the Corps said in release. “Notification will be given in advance with adequate time for evacuation. However, expeditious action must be taken to protect life and property.”

For a video report on fears that runaway barges will break levees click here. 

Elsewhere on the inland rivers, Smithland Lock and Dam at mile 918.5 on the Ohio River closed on April 26 because of high water. A weir was usable, but the corps left the navigation decisions up to the industry, a spokesman said. Few were taking a chance. As of May 4, 17 vessels with 124 barges were in queue for the lock. At one point, a Coast Guard notice to mariners required all southbound towing vessels on the Ohio to have a minimum 240 horsepower for each loaded barge.

“It truly is a wall of water. It’s going to create all sorts of problems, all the way to the Gulf Coast,” said Knapper. Tows could run around some of the closed locks, “with the exception of the lock at Smithland, because the water is so high,” he said. “We are running very, very slowly on the lower Ohio.”

Blessey Marine had one tow stuck at Smithland and two in Chicago waiting to come down the Illinois. On the Lower Mississippi, they were light loading the barges. “They handle better with the current,” and discharging one barge at a time instead of two to have a little more horsepower, Blessey said.

And that’s one more extra cost, as Eriksen pointed out. A lot of extra fuel will be consumed idling or just getting through the high water, he said.

For a Bloomberg video report on the “barge standstill,” visit YouTube here.

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