A year ago, our cover story (“Flood Stage”) was all about the historic high water levels on the Mississippi River system that “tested the mettle of inland tug and barge operators.”
In August 2011, brownwater operators were assessing the damage from the worst flooding on the U.S. inland waterways system since 1927. Last year the Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge, La., for the first time since 1973. The move kept Lower Mississippi floodwaters from inundating Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Several workboat-related businesses had to shutter operations, move equipment and relocate until the water receded. Barge operators had to deal with periodic river and lock and dam closures, barge tow limits of 20 to 25 bottoms, higher fuel costs, and longer transit times. Daily idling costs were an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 for downbound grain tows. For inland barge companies, it translated into millions in losses.
Fast forward to August 2012. Barge operators are dealing with low water and drought conditions that are approaching 1988 levels when over 4,000 barges were stranded and the industry lost an estimated $1 billion.
In Dale DuPont’s report on the drought that begins on page 20, barge operators have had to deal with temporary river closures caused by groundings, restricted traffic and tow sizes, and, like last year, are taking big hits to the bottom line.
Due to draft restrictions, operators have had to use more barges, more fuel and more manpower to move the same amount of tonnage. Kirby estimates that the drought has cost it $500,000 a month. Merritt Lane, CEO of Canal Barge Co., said, “The only thing that is going to correct this is more water.”
To get an idea what a difference a year makes, in early August at Vicksburg, Miss., the Mississippi was at 4.14′ versus a record high of 57.10′ last year. Memphis, Tenn., was at 7.9′ below normal river levels, closing in on 1988’s record 10.70′ below normal.
Even the paddlewheeler American Queen has been affected. Due to low water, the vessel avoided Vicksburg and instead bussed passengers there.
The Corps is working hard dredging the Mississippi and its tributaries. Hopefully it will be enough.