Mississippi low-water conditions improve

Things look better for barge traffic as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished chipping away at rock pinnacles on the Mississippi River in January. 

However, though the industry says that the Corps has done a good job and the situation has not gotten as bad as first thought, there were still no guarantees that navigation would continue beyond the end of January.

The Corps originally planned to remove the hazardous rocks that obstructed the navigation channel between miles 46 and 38 near Thebes, Ill, south of St. Louis, in February.

Since November, operators have worried that the Mississippi might shrink to a level that would effectively halt shipping on the river, where low water has affected delivery times, rates and barge capacity along the river system. Traffic at some spots could move only eight hours a day. 

“I expect to have a 9′ channel and be operating on that part of the river the rest of the year,” said Austin Golding, co-owner of Golding Barge Line Inc., Vicksburg, Miss. “The onus is on the powers that be to provide us a 9′ channel.” 

 Everyone’s operating on a worst-case rather than a best-case scenario. “We’re just looking at each update and each projection,” Golding said.

The industry has been increasingly vocal about the potentially dire economic consequences of a halt to traffic on the busy river system. Supply chain disruptions along the Mississippi could affect more than 8,000 jobs and 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion, the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) said.

Removal of about 890 cu. yds. of limestone began in December. “We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue,” Mississippi Valley Division Commander Maj. Gen. John Peabody said in early January. The Corps also released water from Carlyle Lake in Illinois and continued dredging both the Upper and Lower Mississippi. 

Operators welcomed any signs of hope. The tug and barge industry has praised the efforts of the Corps to keep the Mississippi River from suffering a navigation shutdown at the waterway’s most vulnerable points. 

“The rock pinnacle removal is going better than expected, and the Corps now states we will have our 10′ of water at Thebes through at least January,” Martin T. Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales, AEP River Operations, Chesterfield, Mo., said in early January. “Finally some good news on this situation.”

Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn., also was temporarily relieved. “Faced with the continuation of historic drought conditions, the Corps’ actions appear to be progressing fast enough to maintain sufficient water to allow towboat operators to return to near normal operations, at least for the immediate future,” Dave O’Loughlin, vice president, customer service, said in a statement.

AWO and WCI want assurances that all options to maintain navigation without further draft restrictions are on the table since long-range forecasts show water levels dropping to historic lows. “We are not out of the woods,” said AWO president Tom Allegretti.

Prospects for release of water from the Missouri River are slim. The Corps said the Missouri, which is affected by the drought as well, is not authorized to provide navigation for the Mississippi.

The latest low-water information is at http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/lowwater. 

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