High water has ripped barges loose and stopped navigation on inland rivers in a marked contrast to the severe drought conditions of a few months ago.
On Saturday morning, 114 barges broke away at the Port of St. Louis, and the Mississippi River was closed between Mile Markers 170 and 155, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Colin Fogarty. Late Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard reopened the 15-mile stretch to traffic after determining that none of the 11 barges that sank were a risk to navigation.
“An investigation is under way to determine a cause, but the likely suspect is high water,” which also is affecting the Missouri, Red and Illinois rivers, he said.
Eighty-four of the barges belonged to American Commercial Lines, Jeffersonville, Ind., said spokesman Kim Durbin. The company was developing plans to salvage 11 of the coal-laden barges that sank.
She didn’t have an estimate of the amount of damage to some of the barges that broke away.
The loose barges were rounded up in just less than 18 hours, Fogarty said, praising other operators for their help. “Had the good Samaritans of the river industry not been out here, the situation would have been far worse,” he said.
The water at St. Louis was 33.9′ and due to crest at 35′ because of the recent rain.
Numerous aids to navigation have been affected in general by the high water, but the Coast Guard was not going to lay any new buoys yet.
The Corps of Engineers has closed Lock & Dams 16 – 22 on the Mississippi and the Marseilles and Stained Rock lock and dams on the Illinois, said spokesman Allen Marshall of the Corps’ Rock Island District. The Upper Mississippi crested at 19.2′ on Sunday at Rock Island; flood stage is 19′, he said.
Farther south, a 21-mile stretch of the Mississippi was closed after a barge tow hit the Vicksburg Railroad Bridge over the weekend and 30 barges carrying coal and grain broke free.
Thirteen upbound and eight downbound tows were stopped between MM 436 and MM 415.
All of the barges involved in the Sunday morning accident were accounted for, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Tippets. One sank parallel to the navigation channel just south of the I-20 bridge piling, two were partially submerged on the bank, and one was aground on a dike.
The Coast Guard opened southbound traffic Monday. As of Monday afternoon, the queue was 17 northbound vessels and 12 southbound vessels. Once southbound traffic is cleared, northbound traffic will be allowed to transit.
The barges heading south were being pushed by the 8,000-hp towboat Capt. Buck Lay, owned by AEP River Operations, Chesterfield, Mo.
“We don’t have a cause yet. We’re still looking into it,” said AEP spokesman Jennifer Mason. There were no injuries.
The high river stages and flooding have had a significant impact on navigation, said Sean M. Duffy, Sr., executive director of the Big River Coalition. “We don’t know what an average year is any more,” he said. “It appears we could go from a flood to a drought to a flood event again.”
Last year’s drought cost the industry millions because of light-loading, restricted tow sizes, longer transit times and fluctuating rates. The dry spell followed 2011’s disastrous floods.
Duffy expects the locks to be open by early May, but that depends on future rains. One bright spot is that the water is replenishing reservoirs used to cope with the drought.