Boats & Barges

Mississippi River Drops To ‘Severe’ Levels

The drought that has engulfed the entire northern hemisphere, including the western half of the United States, for much of this year, is catching up with the Mississippi River at the most anxious time for farmers—right at harvest season.

The ACBL newsletter American Currents reports, “River levels continue to fall on the Mississippi River with severe impacts to navigation not seen since 1988.” On October 3, the New Orleans Engineer District closed Harvey Lock, at the mouth of the Harvey Canal where it enters the Mississippi River, until further notice “due to risk from reverse head conditions as a result of low water levels on the Mississippi River.”

At Stack Island on the Lower Mississippi, about 200 miles north of New Orleans, the barge industry has agreed to let the Corps close the river and dredge for 36 hours, then start passing traffic. At this writing, the industry was managing a barge queue that stood at 79 northbound tows with 1,488 barges and 59 southbound tows with 875 barges, for a total queue of 138 tows with 2,363 barges.

UPDATE: Stack Island Barge Queue Being Cleared

The Corps of Engineers dredge Hurley, homeported in the Memphis Engineer District, has been doing emergency dredging of the channel at Stack Island, Mile 484, to help clear a backlog of 74 northbound tows with 1,138 barges and 111 southbound tows with 1,754 barges—a total of 2,892 barges in 185 tows.

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Once buoys were reset, the first northbound test tow showed a positive depth of 12 feet. After a southbound test tow has cleared, the Coast Guard will broadcast and open the channel to northbound traffic and clear the northbound queue. After the northbound traffic has cleared, the Coast Guard will transition to southbound traffic.

Vessel operators must contact the port of St. Louis to verify that their transiting vessels have the latest updated river channel and buoy information loaded onto their electronic navigation systems.

The dredge Hurley will stay on site to monitor until the morning of Oct. 9 (Sunday), after which it will move to Mile 681, where a shallow spot has held up a smaller queue of 21 tows.

– David Murray

Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River reported eight groundings in the past week due to low water levels. There were reports of barge groundings October 4 near Stack Island, Miss., with a restriction from Mile 478 to 492 and in Memphis, Tenn., and a waterway closure from Mile 686 to 676.

“Due to low water levels on the Lower Mississippi River, we have seen an increase in commercial vessel groundings,” said Capt. Eric Carrero, director of Western Rivers and Waterways at the Eighth Coast Guard District. “In response, the Coast Guard established a Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit with our federal, state, local, and maritime industry partners to facilitate safe navigation and the continued flow of commerce along the affected waterways.”

The unit was established to coordinate and facilitate waterway recovery, track the status of the waterway, recommend courses of action to the captain of the port, resume maritime commerce flow and provide a forum for all stakeholders.

Flows from Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River will be reduced in late November, which will drop Mississippi River levels further by December 1 without rain relief. The Missouri River normally contributes up to 45 percent of the Mississippi River’s flow, and more during droughts.

Grain Barges

Tight barge supply has resulted in low grain barge volumes and high rates, according to the Grain Transportation Report released September 29 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the week ending September 24, year-to-date downbound grain volumes on the Mississippi River reached 23.9 million tons, 4 percent lower than the five-year average and 10 percent lower than the same period last year.

Since the beginning of September, 1,890 grain barges have unloaded in New Orleans, about 39 percent fewer than the five-year average. Similarly, barge freight rates have increased steadily since early August. As of September 27, the St. Louis barge rate for export grain was a record 1,250 percent of tariff ($49.88 per ton), 95 percent higher than the five-year average, and 58 percent higher than the same period last year.

Rail Service Struggling

Meanwhile, according to the grain report, Class I rail service is still struggling. Poor service in the first half of the year led to a two-day hearing in April at the Surface Transportation Board on urgent rail service issues. The railroads were required to provide detailed service recovery plans and weekly status updates to the STB. Since June, grain rail service has improved but challenges remain, and at the same time, grain carloads have been declining.