Yesterday, word came that the Coast Guard closed an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi near Greenville, Miss., due to low water. The move stranded almost a 100 tows.
A year ago, the news was all about historic high water levels on the Mississippi River system.
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.
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 today. 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.
Barge operators continue to deal with temporary river closures like the one near Greenville, increased groundings, and restricted traffic and tow sizes. And just like last year, operators 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 recently avoided Vicksburg, Miss., and instead bussed passengers there from Memphis, Tenn.
The Corps is working its dredges hard to keep vessel traffic moving. But as one Corps official said, last year’s flooding and this year’s low water are not that unusual. It’s just part of doing business on the river. Hopefully it will not get much worse.