Rains Bring Slight Improvements To River Levels 

Recent rain showers and the expectation of more as Hurricane Nicole moves inland are helping stabilize the depth of the Lower Mississippi River, but congestion remains a problem as closures for dredging continue.

Randy Chamness, co-chair of the Lower Mississippi River Committee (LOMRC), said some parts of Missouri have recently received more than 2 inches of rain, and areas farther east have generally seen 1 to 1-1/2 inches of precipitation. At press time, Hurricane Nicole was expected to deliver more rain to some parts of Ohio and northern Kentucky along the Ohio River Valley.

“Everybody’s holding their breath, wondering how much they’re going to get,” he said.

Conditions ‘Somewhat’ Stabilizing

Overall, Chamness described conditions along the Lower Mississippi as “somewhat stabilized.”

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 “It’s been very nice to have the extra water in the system, but we need a lot more to get us out of this, obviously,” he said.

The river’s width and depth are now maintaining in most locations instead of continuing to deteriorate, he added.

“We did see a nice rise in St. Louis of about 3 feet on the gauge,” Chamness said. “On the Lower [Mississippi], in Memphis, it was marginal, but we did see a 1-1/2-foot to 2-foot increase gradually in Memphis.”

Some longer-term models are showing the possibility of slow overall improvement, although that could change, and the situation should still be considered critical, he said. “At least we’re not in the negative 10 range in Memphis. Being negative 7 or negative 8, while not ideal, at least lets us move with the tow size we have.”

Tow Restrictions

The controlling draft remained at 9 feet, 6 inches southbound from Cairo, but “we are at a hard 9 foot northbound,” Chamness said.

The maximum tow size was 25 barges southbound and 35 northbound, but with a maximum of three barges wide in the tow.

Major dredging continues to take place at Stack Island, at Mile 486, with rolling 24-hour closures building queues of 40 to 50 tows typically, Chamness said.

The dredge Hurley also expected to begin dredging November 10 just below Finley Bar at Lower Mississippi Mile 704, which would necessitate a closure of at least 24 hours, he said.

The next hot spots for dredging were anticipated to be just below the Booth Point Bridge in Caruthersville, Mo., at Mile 839, Kate Aubrey/Gold Dust at Mile 793 and at Cherokee/Meriwether at Mile 869.

“We continually get surveys through different areas based on feedback we’re getting from the mariners,” he said.

With barges continuing to light-load, more tows are in the system to facilitate shipping the harvest, however. Combined with intermittent closures, that is creating a glut of barge traffic in some locations.

“As long as we have these queues that build 40-50 boats, the congestion is going to continue,” Chamness said. “The boats are going to move in waves, and it’s a really big challenge to try to space the boats out whenever we’ve got closures going on concurrently. When you’re turning 40-50 boats loose at once it creates some congestion in the ports. We do get some added congestion at the fueling locations.”

The industry is also bracing for the annual reduction in flow from the Missouri River, which is set to begin November 19 at Gavins Point. Chamness said the reduction in flow could have a significant impact from St. Louis south although the extent of it remains unknown right now.

“Our No. 1 priority is obviously to keep our crews safe, but to keep barges moving in this climate is the goal everyone has,” he said.

Ohio River Impacts

While most of the attention on low water has focused on the hard-hit Lower Mississippi, the Ohio River is seeing some more minor impacts. Stephen G. Durrett, regional program director for the Corps’ Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, addressed those impacts at the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA) fall membership meeting on November 3 as part of a keynote address. He later shared those insights with The Waterways Journal.

The drought along the main stem of the Ohio has not been too severe largely because of the management of the reservoirs in the lock and dam system, Durrett said. Those have provided the ability for feeding a “minimal” amount of fresh water into the system as needed.

“Our real issue on the Ohio is below the last dam on the system, at Olmsted Lock and Dam,” he said.

The Corps is continually surveying the area between Olmsted and Cairo, Ill., using two survey boats.

“As we identify high spots or deposition of sand in the river, we have two dredges down there as well,” Durrett said.

The two contracted dredges, a cutterhead dredge and a clamshell dredge, came out of the Louisville and Huntington districts.

Durrett said no major issues have cropped up, although more minor ones have from time to time.

“We have coordination calls constantly, and we’re working well with industry,” he said.

He warned about the importance of all stakeholders maintaining vigilance, however.

“The rain we got a couple of weeks ago is enough where we think we’re going to be able to run pretty smoothly, although industry is going to have to keep watching their loads,” he said. “We don’t want to run a very heavy load or a very deep draft.”

While rain last week helped, “We’re going to need a couple of more of those before we pull our dredges out of there,” he said.

“Our region is in constant communication with the Mississippi River Division as well as the Northwest Division that controls the Missouri River system. We’re communicating on an every-other-day basis about what water is coming and where it’s coming from.”