New Snowmelt Heading Down Mississippi

Even as some locks on the Upper Mississippi River are tentatively scheduled to reopen in early April, fresh snowmelt and high water may extend their closures further.

The Upper Mississippi River basin is holding a much higher than usual volume of snow and ice, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). As it melts, it will bring renewed high water and flooding downriver. How soon and how swiftly that happens depends on temperatures.

In its March 21 briefing on spring flood conditions in the area, the NWS said, “There continues to be an above-to-much-above-normal chance of widespread flooding in the Upper Mississippi River basin including its headwater tributaries … Taking all of these factors into account, the flood potential for the Upper Mississippi River basin continues to be above to well above normal this spring. High soil moisture and high snow water content on the landscape, combined with a delayed melt and frozen ground late in the season, suggest that when we finally do see warm spring temperatures arrive, the melt is more likely to melt quickly. With ice in the rivers and frozen ground, the resulting runoff looks to generate a high potential for flooding. Also, depending on just how fast the melt occurs, or if we get spring rainfall, we may end up with moderate to major flooding, especially on the mainstem Mississippi River.”

The NWS said the snow line at press time extended across northwestern Missouri through Davenport, Iowa, to Chicago, Ill., through Grand Rapids, Mich., and into Bay City, Mich. South of that line, little to no snow remained.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Lock Closures

At press time:

• Lock 16 at Upper Mississippi Mile 457, closed on March 16, is expected to reopen “beyond” April 3.

• Lock 17 at Mile 437, closed since March 21, was expected to reopen beyond April 3.

• Lock 18 at Mile 410 closed March 18, was expected to reopen April 2.

• Lock 20 at Mile 343, closed since March 18, is expected to reopen beyond April 10.

• Lock 21 at Mile 325, closed since March 21, was expected to reopen March 30.

• Lock 22 at Mile closed at 02:00 on 3/20, expected to reopen beyond April 10.

The Illinois River continues to operate under reduced tow sizes of no more than 12 barges. From St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., tows are still reduced by one string (5 barges), and transits through St. Louis harbor and Thebes bridge remain limited to daylight only. Those conditions are expected to last until the middle of April.

RIETF Recommendations

The River Industry Executive Task Force (RIETF) released a list of recommended best practices during high water.

The RIETF list recommends that crewmembers keep an eye on all passing vessels and notify the other vessel if anyone sees a potentially unsafe situation (such as open doors).

It strongly urges that each crew conduct a risk assessment to determine if a job or operation is unsafe under high water conditions. Prior to starting any voyage, the letter urges each company perform a risk assessment to ensure that the appropriate mariner (based on geographic experience) and the appropriate vessel (based on horsepower or other operational criteria) are selected for the job.

Other recommendations:

• before every job, a safety-job briefing must be communicated to all team members;

• safety-job briefings must be done before the crew starts to work on the boat or goes out on a tow; Safety-job briefings follow the company’s safety management system (SMS);

• the captain must complete a voyage plan and must ensure that the tow does not exceed the standards for tow size to horsepower found in the company’s SMS, the Waterway Action Plan or Coast Guard restrictions. If it does, the captain must immediately stop work and notify the port captain;

• take steps to maximize freeboard;

• routinely inspect the vessel;

• ensure that all doors, voids and hatches are closed at all times.

• if any item needs repair, stop work and notify the port captain; Do not sail until clearance is provided; and

• if a captain believes the voyage is unsafe in any way, stop work and immediately notify the port captain. All issues must be resolved prior to getting underway.

After getting underway, captains and crewmembers should follow the voyage plan/watch change procedures, and should document that a discussion of current and upcoming conditions occurred between the oncoming and offgoing watch. If at any time critical equipment is not functioning properly, the crew should immediately stop and notify the port captain, and if required, the Coast Guard.

Downstreaming Caution

RIETF recommends that “every effort to find a different maneuver should be considered prior to deciding to downstream,” a procedure in which a towing vessel moves downstream with the current of a river in order to approach and land on another object, such as a barge or a dock.

According to the National Safety Transportation Board, downstreaming played a role in the April 2016 capsizing and sinking of the towing vessel Ricky J. Leboeuf on the San Jacinto River just outside of Houston, resulting in the death of one crewmember.

Prior to downstreaming, crews should conduct a risk assessment to determine the risks associated with the maneuver. The assessment should include the river’s velocity, whether an empty or loaded barge is being landed, the vessel’s horsepower, the experience of the watch officer, proximity to shore, and the training and geographic experience of the captain. Rake barges should not be landed in a downstreaming maneuver.

All watertight and weather tight doors, windows, hatches, and voids must be closed and secured, and all crewmembers should be notified of the intention to downstream, including off watch (sleeping) crewmembers.