Low water near Memphis, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of American Commercial Barge Line)

River Bumps Slightly Upward But Rainfall Needed

With little to no remaining upriver storage, it will take rain, and plenty of it, for the river to rise, but long-range forecasts offer hope.

Randy Chamness, co-chairman of the Lower Mississippi River Committee (LOMARC), discussed the challenges facing the system, while also acknowledging a slight respite over the past few days.

Closures And Delays

While controlling drafts between Cairo, Ill., and Vicksburg, Miss., had been holding steady at 9 feet, 6 inches, they were further reduced to 9 feet for about a week before rebounding to the previous level the afternoon of October 23, Chamness said.

“Although it was only for a few days, it was kind of a shock to industry,” Chamness said of the 9-foot draft.

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That period coincided with a number of groundings, most notably at Lower Mississippi Mile 920 (Hickman, Ky.) and Mile 925 (Parker Landing), which between the two of them had five groundings and resulted in about four days of closures, Chamness said. Ultimately, he said, off-station and missing buoys contributed to those closures.

Another problem area was at Lower Mississippi Mile 437 (Delta Point) at Vicksburg, Miss., where the river was closed for a grounding October 20 and didn’t reopen until late in the day October 21.

“It’s actually taken about three days to completely clear up that queue that was backed up,” Chamness said.

The dredge Jadwin was also working in the area, which complicated clearing the queue. The dredge was operating in 24-hour windows, allowing traffic to clear for 24 hours afterward.

Transit times from Cairo to New Orleans are taking roughly 40 percent longer, depending on dredging delays.

American Commercial Barge Line reported in its “American Currents” newsletter for October 25 that delays of 48 to 72 hours were common due to reduced navigable space in certain areas.

“It’s really taking a toll on the transit times, which is just added delay into the system at the wrong time of year,” Chamness said. “We’re in the heart of harvest in the Midwest, and trying to keep everything moving is a big deal right now.”

Rain On Way?

Some recent upriver rain has helped, however.

“Fortunately, we are seeing a slight recovery in Memphis,” Chamness said. “We’re out of the negative 11 [feet] territory, which makes a huge difference.”
On October 16, the Memphis stage had fallen to a historic low of -11.8 feet.

“With the slight recovery we’re seeing, we’re hoping the groundings are going to subside and get back to what we were seeing before,” Chamness said.

The Tennessee and Cumberland river basins already have fallen to winter pool levels, so no further help can come from upriver storage.

“There’s no water in storage,” Chamness said. “Everything right now is predicated on rain. There’s really no extra water to release.”

Typically, October is the driest month in the Midwest, he said, so he is hoping that November and December will bring a return to wetter weather. A look at the extended forecast showed a chance of some extensive rainfall about two weeks out.

“There are chances of rain up north that could stabilize conditions, but it’s not here yet,” he said. “We’ll have to see if it materializes.”

River levels will also be affected by the planned annual decrease in flow from the Missouri River as its navigation season comes to an end. The Corps of Engineers tentatively planned to reduce releases around November 22 with a targeted end date of December 1 at the mouth of the Missouri.

Increased flows are also helping inhibit the flow of a salt water wedge up the Mississippi River. Based on a 28-day forecast, the Corps of Engineers said the Dalcour, La., community was not expected to experience chloride levels exceeding 250 ppm when it had previously been forecast to do so by November 18. The Belle Chasse community was expected to reach the level November 30 instead of November 13. All other forecasts remained unchanged.

Continued Dredging

Dredging continued at problem areas throughout the system. The Hurley was wrapping up operations October 25 at Mile 704 and planned on moving to Commerce, Mo., at Mile 696. After working in the area a planned two to three days, it was due to relocate to Nelms at Mile 709.

The Jadwin was expected to remain working at Lower Mississippi Mile 437 until November 1 at the latest before relocating to Stack Island, Mile 484.

The dredge Potter was already working in the Commerce, Mo., area and expected to remain there for several more days, said George Stringham, chief of public affairs for the St. Louis Engineer District.

A mechanical dredge with the mv. Pathfinder was working at Costello Lock and Dam guidewall and expected to remain in that area throughout the week.

The dredge Goetz was scheduled to be in the Grafton, Ill., area through October 30 or October 31 before moving into pool 25, Stringham said.

Effects on Industry

George Leavell, president of Wepfer Marine, talked about the low-river conditions’ effect on related industry. Wepfer Marine offers harbor, fleeting and shifting services, drydock repair, floating cranes, marine salvage and fueling services. Fleeting locations include some of the most affected portions of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

“It’s been a struggle,” Leavell said. “With reduced drafts, reduced tow sizes and all that, it’s caused our fleets to fill up at a time that we’ve lost a lot of fleeting space because of low water.”

He credited the Corps of Engineers with being “very proactive” with the dredging schedule.

“That’s truly helped the mainstem river,” he said.

However, he noted that various constraints are affecting the Corps’ ability to dredge harbors. That includes pipeline locations in the Memphis, Tenn., harbor, he said.

Additionally, he noted that because the harbors are so shallow, what equipment is moving is moving much more slowly, down from the 5-6 knots typical in a lake all the way down to 1 or 2 knots. Harbor boats, especially, are more susceptible to damaging wheels, shafts and rudders in these conditions, he said.

The Greenville, Miss., harbor had extensive dredging, which helped in some areas but in others not as much, he said.

“We need some mainstem dredging in Greenville,” Leavell said, noting that there had been a lot of shoaling there.

Leavell pointed to the Caruthersville, Mo., and Hickman, Ky., areas as having been hit particularly hard.

Working Together

Overall, Leavell said he thinks the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard have been good partners this year, and he singled out the Corps in being very proactive in working with industry as to the timing of closures. Additional money for dredging in both the harbors and mainstem have also been helpful, he said.

Groundings are down significantly compared to last year, Leavell said.

Also helpful, he said, is that those working in the industry learned a lot of lessons last year that have been put into practice this year.

Still, he said he thinks there is room for improvement in the management of the system.

“I’m hoping going forward we can have discussions with the Corps with regard to water coming off the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers,” he said.

He would like to see a stable river when harvest hits and thinks conversations about water management after the flooding season ends could be useful.

While a rapid rise can move buoys around and push fleets in, “Usually after there has been a rapid rise, there’s a rapid fall, and you can get barges on ground,” Leavell said. “Whether it’s lower or higher, major fluctuations are not good.”

Greg Curlin, director of the Hickman-Fulton County Riverport Authority in Hickman, Ky., also sees general improvement in how the Corps, Coast Guard and industry have worked together this year.

Last year the port had to close for eight days. This year, he said, it has stayed open the entire time, following dredging that took place in July.

Last year, he said, the river fell rapidly, but also rose back to more typical levels more rapidly. This year, he said, it started earlier and seems to be dragging on.

Curlin noted that it is taking longer to load barges as it takes more of them to carry the same amount of cargo at a lighter draft.

With the cost of freight being so high, more farmers are storing their grain instead of shipping it, Curlin said. With about 75 percent of the port’s business being agricultural, the port can see the difference. Right now, he said, the port is loading about 60 percent of the grain it sees this time of year compared to a typical year.

“We’re hoping that will be short-lived,” he said.

Leavell said he appreciates how those working along the river come together in times of difficulty.

“Nobody wants to see anybody else get in a bad jam and get people hurt,” he said. “I think our industry is unique in that we communicate very well with each other.”

An example he gave was line haul boats going through shallow areas will share soundings and readings with LOMARC, which distributes them to companies with boats traveling through the area.

He said line haul boat companies have also worked with Wepfer to try to get loads picked up on a timely basis, “and as a result we’ve been able to keep things moving.”

Leavell said he is hopeful that by the end of the year, depending on the carriers and the commodity market, companies will move just as much tonnage as in a normal year.

He said, “It’s just going to take a little longer, and it’s going to take more barges to move it.”