Low Water, Lock Delays Slow River Traffic

October 9, 2017


A combination of low water conditions and unscheduled lock delays has significantly slowed river traffic just as the peak of the harvest season approaches. The resulting tow back-ups have affected barge rates and agricultural markets.

On October 3, Locks 52 and 53 were both open and transiting tows through their 1,200-foot chambers after an unscheduled eight-day total closure. The closure was prompted by the discovery in Lock 53 of an obstruction in the main chamber that did not allow the gates to properly close. Corps crews worked around the clock to make repairs.

At peak backlog, as many 70 downbound tows were waiting to transit the aging chokepoint. Carol Labashosky, spokeswoman for the Louisville Engineer District, told The Waterways Journal October 4that there were only 12 upstream and eight downstream tows waiting at Lock 52 on October 3. Lock 53 had 53 tows waiting, somewhat down from a few days earlier.

Locks and Dams 52 and 53 were originally built in the 1920s; the current facilities were built as “temporary” facilities in the 1970s. Both are due to be removed after being replaced by Olmsted Lock & Dam. While Locks 52 and 53 constituted the worst chokepoint, tows also waited at Smithland, Cannelton, Meldahl and Dashields locks.

Low rainfall and river gages are adding to shippers’ woes. None of the recent huge rainfalls from hurricanes Harvey or Irma came in areas that helped to raise river levels.

Draft restrictions are in effect at Lock 52 due to low water conditions; Corps officials said they could only predict being able to maintain current levels through October 8 or 9. Efforts to maintain pool in the low water conditions included the building of another dike to reduce water loss; that effort began on October 4. The dike was built in front of a section of rock called a “bear trap” designed to shore up sections of dam. If it succeeds, the Corp expects to be able to maintain pools through October; if not, another three-day closure could be possible.

Mississippi River Low Water
In its daily newsletter, American Commercial Barge Line warned of “extreme” low water conditions. It said low water had led it to reduce tow sizes to 30 barges and to add between three and five days to average transit times from New Orleans to St. Louis. It also warned that barge drafts have been reduced to 9 feet at Smithland Lock and Dam.

At the same time, rock pinnacle removal work is ongoing near Grand Tower, Ill., about 10 miles north of earlier rock-removal operations at Thebes. While that necessary work requires low water, the project, which began on September 28, also requires passing tows to slow. The work is expected to keep channels open through February. The Corps has also stepped up dredging operations.

Agricultural publications have covered the delays extensively. Soybean stocks are at a 10-year high, and this year’s corn crop may set another record. One publication quoted an anonymous barge broker as saying that grain elevators were “stuffed” with corn while soybeans could not find enough barges.

The bad news for shippers is mixed news for barge operators, as barge rates bumped upward. Rate spikes as much as 1,000 percent over tariff were reported. As readers can see in the “Barge Grain Movements” on page 6, spot barge rates for export grain from major originating areas increased 27 to 50 percent compared to the previous week.

Waterways advocacy groups lost no time using the lock delays to communicate their message to elected officials and the public about the critical necessity of replacing and maintaining aging lock and dam infrastructure.