Rising Mississippi River brings traffic restrictions, early spillway opening

High water moving south in the Ohio and Mississippi River basins continues to disrupt barge traffic, and prompted the Corps of Engineers to open the Bonnet Carré spillway Thursday as the river rose toward its 17’ flood stage at New Orleans.

A winter marked by heavy ice in the northern river systems was followed by heavy rains in February, raising the Ohio to 64.7’ at Cincinnati, heights not seen there since 1997.

Significant flooding is reported around waterway infrastructure that is critical to U.S. grain movements by barge, according to the Department of Agriculture Grain Transportation Report, including Paducah, Ky., Cairo, Ill., Memphis, Tenn., Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, La.

On Thursday the Corps of Engineers reported the Smithland Lock and Dam on the lower Ohio River near Smithland, Ky., was closed. On the Mississippi barge traffic is also restricted to daylight passage at Vicksburg and Memphis, and barge tow sizes have been reduced from 40 to 30 barges on the lower Mississippi River.

Navigation restrictions are set by the Waterway Action Plan, a joint effort of the U.S. Coast Guard, Corps, and senior leaders of the towing industry. For the week ending March 6, barge rates for export grain at major originating locations had a weekly increase of 22 to 34 percent due to the disruptions, the USDA reported.

During the previous week ending March 3, barge grain movements totaled 386,530 tons, 8 percent lower than the previous week and down 53 percent from the same period last year. For the week ending March 3, 252 grain barges moved down river, down 5 percent from last week. There were 751 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, 6 percent lower the previous week.

With the lower river rising the Corps of Engineers began removing needles from the 7,000’ Bonnet Carré structure on the river’s east bank at Norco, La., on Thursday morning to divert some of the 1.25 million cubic feet per second (cfs) flow toward Lake Pontchartrain.

The Corps and Coast Guard warnings about high-water river turbulence and eddies along the New Orleans riverfront were borne out Tuesday, when a 10-barge tow allided with the Gov. Nicholls Street wharf Tuesday afternoon and swung far into the river. The incident damaged some pilings but not the vessels, according to New Orleans police.


About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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