Water Levels Keep Dropping

As punishing drought continues with no significant rain forecasts on the immediate horizon, Mississippi River levels continue to drop, approaching the record lows of last year and squeezing bargeloads even more. Both scheduled and unscheduled lock closures are further complicating the logistic situation on the waterways.

The latest maps on the U.S. Drought Monitor, which display September 5 data, show moderate or severe drought, or abnormally dry conditions, throughout most of the upper Midwest. The Ohio River basin is not quite as drought-stricken, but most of the lower Missouri River basin suffers from the same drought conditions.

At Olmsted Locks and Dam, 22 tows total—both northbound and southbound–were waiting to transit as of September 14. Part of that backup was due to temporary river shutdowns while American Bar below the lock and dam was being dredged. One of the two lock chambers was also undergoing a scheduled closure from August 9 through September 24.

Along the Illinois River and in St. Louis and the Mid-Mississippi region, loading drafts continue to be reduced by at least 15 percent.

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The Memphis gage stood at -10.2 feet as of September 14; last year, the record was -10.81, meaning the water is within six-tenths of a foot of surpassing last year’s low water record. While a slight bump in water levels was predicted for Memphis, by September 28 levels are expected to be back at -10.5, according to the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration’s hydrograph.

At Hickman, Ky., Mile 928, where the Corps dredge Hurley was operating, 75 tows were waiting to transit until the river was opened September 13.
Downriver, loads have been further reduced. The U.S. Coast Guard captain of the port for the Lower Mississippi River issued a Low Water Safety Advisory for the LMR with the concurrence of the Lower Mississippi River Committee (LOMARC), made up of industry representatives. He has placed the following restrictions on tows transiting the Lower Mississippi River. 

Tow sizes have been limited to six wide from Cairo to the Gulf, reflecting a 17-25 percent reduction in tow size. Between Miles 869 and 482, barge drafts may be no greater than 10 feet.  Between Miles 482 and 303, barge drafts are limited to 10 feet, 6 inches. Every 6-inch reduction equals 110 tons per barge.

For tows transiting between Miles 482 and 869, drafts are limited to 9 feet, 6 inches.

GIWW Delays

Since August 21, there have been two-hour delays between lockages at Leland Bowman Lock, Mile 162.7 WHL on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, to limit saltwater intrusion due to extremely low water levels in the Mermentau Basin. Average total delay was more than 24 hours, and 36 tows were waiting to transit on both sides of the lock.

Starting October 1, Algiers Lock will have a closure due to a vessel impact to repair gates that could last anywhere from 30 to 45 days.

Gulf Coast coal ship departures fell 57.1 percent to six coal ships amid declining Mississippi River water levels in the week ending September 10, according to September 12 data from the U.S. Geological Survey and Platts cFlow ship and commodity tracking software from S&P Global Commodity Insights.