Low Water Leads To Groundings On Upper, Lower Miss

At least seven vessels have grounded in the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tenn., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., since January 22 after a period of extreme low water.

“I think it was a little bit of a perfect storm,” said Randall Chamness, chairman of the Lower Mississippi River Committee.

Chamness reported five groundings initially from January 22-24. Of those, three were on the Lower Mississippi at miles 813, 816 and 926, and the other two were on the Upper Mississippi at the 23 and 46 mile points. No one was hurt, and no sinkings or major damage took place, but three of the five resulted in barges going adrift, Chamness said.

Later, Lynn Muench, senior vice presidentregional advocacy for The American Waterways Operators, said two more groundings had taken place since the weekend.

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“We know the ultimate fix is more water in the system: rain,” Chamness said, noting some significant rainfall on January 25. “We know we’re going to get about 10 extra feet in Memphis, so we’ll get some benefit out of it, but it didn’t go far north enough to have as much benefit in St. Louis.”

That likely means operators may find themselves navigating through similar conditions in the coming weeks, he said.

Rain had been in the forecast for some time, but it didn’t arrive fast enough, he said. Meanwhile, dredging was not possible as the Memphis district’s dredge has been down for repairs, he said.

“We had several areas that were really deteriorating on us faster than expected,” Chamness said. “We knew there was rain coming. It just didn’t get here soon enough.”

However, he added, lack of rain wouldn’t have mattered as much if buoys had been set in critical areas as the river was falling. Chamness said he had expressed his concerns with the Coast Guard’s Sector Ohio Valley, Sector Lower Mississippi and Marine Safety Unit Paducah as well as the Corps’ Memphis and Vicksburg districts.

At one point in the week before the groundings, the Coast Guard had one buoy tender available, Chamness said he was told. It normally has five on the Lower Mississippi and one on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Mechanical issues and COVID-19 precautions were the reasons for the lack of available vessels, he said. He said three vessels would be available to set buoys in the area within the coming week.

AWO Criticisms

Muench said she had also heard about the lack of available cutters in the area, and she did not mince words when calling for greater availability.

“It’s putting lives and property at risk,” she said, adding, “We’re very concerned about the state of the cutter situation on the river. Obviously, there were deteriorating conditions with the water going down, but that happens on a regular basis. Certainly, one of the influencers on these groundings is the number of cutters that are in use at this point.”

AWO has added proposed language to its national priorities for 2021, calling to secure legislation to accelerate the Coast Guard’s acquisition of Waterways Commerce Cutters and to promote alternative aids to navigation placement options to promote safe and reliable navigation pending delivery of the cutters. Muench noted that this is a draft and that these priorities have not yet been submitted to be approved by members.

One immediate concern involves response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now, if anybody on the crew tests positive for COVID, they’re shutting down the whole cutter,” Muench said. “We’ve asked them (after sanitizing), to move one of the crews from the other cutters that are not able to work because they have a mechanical difficulty.”

Additionally, she said, AWO believes additional shipyards should be vetted to work on Coast Guard vessels. Where necessary, she said, the Coast Guard should also look to eliminate what she said appear to be outdated and inefficient policies and procedures to expedite solutions.

Muench, in fact, was sharply critical of the Coast Guard response so far, saying that AWO members have reported problems for months with getting channels marked with buoys. The issues have been mainly on the Lower Mississippi but also on the Upper Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas rivers, she said. She said members were “pleading for buoys” between Memphis and Cairo, Ill., beginning about a week prior to the reported groundings.

“What they’re doing is negatively affecting the U.S. economy because our members are decreasing the size of their tows, so they’re decreasing the amount of goods moving,” she said. “They’re having to do it for safety reasons because the Coast Guard is not marking the channels appropriately.”

RIETF Letter

Muench also pointed out a letter July 30, 2020, from the River Industry Executive Task Force, signed by industry co-chairman Darin Adrian, to Rear Adm. John P. Nadeau, commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, regarding the state of  the district’s cutters.

In it, Adrian begins by thanking the entire district for their work, saying, “With an aged cutter fleet, your team has worked tirelessly to ensure that the vital arteries of the U.S. economy continue to flow during the ongoing global pandemic.”

However, he continued, “At the heart of everything discussed in this letter is a simple concept: with an average age of 55 years, the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet is too old.”

He gives as an example a period in July when he said four of Sector Lower Mississippi’s five buoy tenders were down for repair.

In what Adrian called a spirit of partnership, the River Industry Executive Task Force outlined several recommendations. They included: shifting decision making on maintenance schedules to the sector captain of the port in consultation with the district; working with other offices to construct the next generation of commerce cutters as quickly as possible; and urging the Coast Guard to implement a streamlined process to contract private vessels and equipment to place buoys (bare boat charters).

Muench said the recent groundings bring the issue of Coast Guard cutters once again to the forefront. She stressed, “This is really impacting the industry’s profitability and really impacting the U.S. economy.”

Coast Guard Response

The Coast Guard’s Eighth District Heartland office responded to The Waterways Journal’s written questions about the groundings and the AWO’s concerns in writing, with  answers attributable to Capt. Blake Welborn, chief of the Eighth District Waterways Management Division.

Concerning buoy placement prior the groundings, “Each Captain of the Port uses the River Industry Executive Task Force and regional coordinating mechanisms every day to collaborate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and industry stakeholders, gather feedback on waterway conditions and known hazards, and as necessary adjust operating parameters and publish navigation guidance in real-time to facilitate safe and efficient movement of tows, particularly in bends of river and other areas that are more prone to shoaling and especially difficult to navigate,” Welborn said.

He did not address the specific availability of cutters to place buoys in the problem area in the days leading up to the groundings, however, instead saying, “Between three inland river sectors managing aids-to-navigation (ATON) on the marine transportation system of the Western Rivers Region, 17 river tenders support more than 7,400 river miles of ATON. Multiple factors inform the availability and operational statuses of our cutters on any given day, whether underway or sidelined due to maintenance, training, drydock, or staffing matters.”
Regarding the situation specifically in the area from Cape Girardeau to Memphis where the groundings took place, Welborn said, “Conditions on the Lower Mississippi River are dynamic and change frequently as water levels rise and fall and as currents increase and decrease. Shoaling is common this time of year as the water levels drop.”

Regarding whether more cutters would be available in the area in the coming days and weeks, he said, “While we don’t typically share cutter movement plans with the general public, we do discuss industry needs, cutter availability and our limitations with RIETF and partner agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, in the interest of facilitating a safe and efficient flow of commerce through our critical waterways.”

When asked about the effect COVID-19 is having on the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain its cutters and position them effectively, Welborn said, “While the Coast Guard is committed to maintaining its operational readiness, the coronavirus may result in a unit not being able to fulfill its operational requirements. If that occurs, a neighboring unit will cover their area of responsibility. We will continue to leverage our relationships with other federal, state and local agencies to maximize our response capabilities.”

As to mechanical difficulties, “With an aging river tender fleet, it is not uncommon to encounter unscheduled maintenance or equipment failures, and several of our cutters have entered scheduled drydock periods or unscheduled dockside maintenance over the course of the last 48 months,” Welborn said. “The fleet, averaging 55 years old, experiences myriad mechanical issues. As an example of the complexity of repairs, the engine manufacturer no longer makes the engines we use, so when parts are needed they are often not readily available, resulting in longer lead times to obtain parts. This is one of the reasons the Waterways Commerce Cutter Acquisition Program is working under an accelerated program schedule.”

Moving forward, with lack of rain and low water expected to continue, Welborn indicated that the Coast Guard is prepared.

“We are well attuned to the recent increase in groundings, and we continue to monitor river levels working with industry, our port partners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide a most conducive navigational environment,” he said. “Members of the maritime community are encouraged to report navigational discrepancies to the Coast Guard so our teams can rectify these issues during their scheduled evolutions. We communicate regularly with industry and our stakeholders to identify the regions requiring prompt attention, and the northerly stretch of the Lower Mississippi River is one of those targeted regions for the resetting of buoys. Tracking river levels throughout the region is an ongoing practice for all of our units, and we will continue to conduct the necessary measures within the Coast Guard’s authorities to ensure a safe and secure navigational system.”

Welborn also noted that the Coast Guard is working to build its cutter fleet.

“In July 2020, the Coast Guard released a draft request for proposal for three new variants of Waterways Commerce Cutters based on already-completed market research and an engineering trade studies and design analysis,” Welborn said. “The Waterways Commerce Cutter Acquisition Program intends to release the final request for proposal this year, with contract award in 2022, and is working under an accelerated program schedule.”