Fall Rains Bring Faint Relief To River Levels

Along with cooler temperatures, October brought some meager rain relief to the parched Midwest, especially the southern reaches of the Mississippi River basin. But the effects of the summer-long drought, including parched soils, meant that the rains were not enough to replenish decreasing Mississippi River levels.

On October 8, the Cairo, Ill., river stage fell to 4.5 feet, a new record low not seen since 1901, before the construction of modern locks and dams.

American Commercial Barge Line reported that in the seven days leading up through October 11, it has experienced a loss of 16.5 boats’ worth of delay per day due to “eroding river conditions.”

The Memphis river gage showed -11.54 feet on October 11, also setting a new record low. The National Weather Service forecast that river levels at St. Louis would level off at -1.8 feet through mid-October, but then resume dropping. Forecasts have the river at Memphis leveling off at a very low -11 feet for most of the rest of October.

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Loading drafts are reduced by 28 percent northbound from the Gulf to Cairo, and by 24 percent southbound from Cairo to the Gulf.

“In 43 years, I’ve never seen conditions like this,” said Marty Hettel, vice president for government affairs at ACBL. He said that 4 inches of rain in the Pekin-Peoria (Ill.) area never made it to the rivers due to dry soils. The dredge Goetz was working at Miles 38.7 and 40 on the Illinois Waterway, 6 to 8 miles upstream from the Kampsville Ferry.

The Corps of Engineers released the dredge Glenn Edwards and replaced it with the dredge Wallace McGeorge. The dredges Jadwin and Hurley are operating below Cairo, Ill. On October 12, the dredge Potter was scheduled to work in the Commerce/Thebes area of the mid-Mississippi. The mechanical dredge Pathfinder is working at Upper Mississippi Mile 159 in the area around Kimmswick, Mo.

On October 10, the Corps of Engineers reported that “significant, wide-spread precipitation is forecasted in the [Missouri River] Basin” through October 14, up to 4 inches, with storms possibly becoming severe by the third day.

Corn, Soybean Exports Flagging

The Brandon Road, Dresden Island and Marseilles locks on the Illinois River are now open following their three-month maintenance closure this summer. However, tow and draft restrictions on the Lower Mississippi River and Ohio River have tightened the supply of barges, raising rates as more barges are required to move the same amount of grain.

Showing the largest declines of all grain, third quarter 2023 barged corn volumes headed to the Gulf totaled 1.5 million tons, 45 percent lower than last year and 63 percent lower than the five-year average. At 9.1 million tons, year-to-date corn volumes were down 32 percent from last year and down 38 percent from the 5-year average.

However, the USDA attributed the decline to lower export sales demand, Brazil’s strong corn crop and the strength of the U.S. dollar rather than to river conditions. From January to July, exports to China, the largest buyer of U.S. corn, were down 64 percent, and exports to Canada, the second largest buyer, were down 71 percent. The lower-than-normal export demand dampened barge rates, which didn’t begin to rise significantly until August, despite river conditions.

Despite an ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Mexico over GMO corn, more than half of all U.S. corn exports were destined for Mexico, which doesn’t depend on barges. Mexico’s corn imports from the U.S. are up 7 percent this year, according to the USDA’s Grain Transportation Report.

Meanwhile, at 1.8 million tons, soybean volumes were 31 percent lower than last year’s and 49 percent lower than the five-year average.