Low Water Conditions Could Continue Into 2024

The river industry is preparing for prolonged low-water conditions, likely through at least the end of the year, while also trying to finish out the fall harvest season.

Randy Chamness, co-chairman of the Lower Mississippi River Committee (LOMRC), said Coast Guard buoy tenders have been key to those efforts over the past week or so.

“They’re doing a good job of marking the channel, and that’s key for us to maintain draft and tow size,” he said. “We feel like this time around it’s in better shape than when we got to these levels before. The buoys are a huge part of that.”

One problem area was at Lower Mississippi Mile 921, just below Hickman Harbor, which Chamness called a critical reach.

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“We’re going to have to reduce our tow size just to get through this area southbound,” he said.

The Coast Guard carried out a “lane shift” in the area November 14, moving vessel traffic from the left descending bank to the right descending bank due to water depths. It is impossible to dredge in that area because of the bedrock bottom, Chamness said.

While barges had been moving through the area up to six wide southbound, Chamness said that was being reduced to five wide. There were no changes for northbound vessels.

In the same area, the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, connecting Dorena, Mo., to Hickman, Ky., has been closed since August 23, despite dredging in the harbor on August 12, according to the ferry service’s Facebook page. Low-water closures started in June, with intermittent closures between then and August 23.

Chamness said he was confident there would be draft reductions no later than early this week, and that both industry and the Corps were monitoring tow sizes on a daily basis.

The dredge Hurley was working at Mile 738, just north of the Interstate 40 bridge in Memphis, Tenn., with rolling 24-hour closures. The dredge Jadwin remained at Mile 484 (Lake Providence) and expected to be there for 7-10 days, Chamness said November 15.

A chance of rain in the forecast for the days surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in the lower Midwest and Ohio Valley could give “no more than a brief reprieve,” Chamness said.

“We’re going to be in this, probably, until the end of the year, to some degree or another,” he said.

He added, “Right now the dredges are doing all they can do. The buoy tenders are doing all they can do.”

One bright spot was that the number of in-channel groundings over the past week had decreased due to some earlier rainfall.

Impact On Harbors And Terminals

Chamness expressed concern about water depths falling in many harbors.

“That’s something we’re watching closely because we know it’s coming,” he said. “As the river falls, these harbors get critical, and it slows our system down.”

Additionally, the upcoming seasonal closure on the Upper Mississippi meant a last-minute rush for moving grains, he said.

“Everybody’s trying to move every ton they can while they can,” he said.

Terry Ferebee, vice president of operations at Helena Marine Service and Helena Bridge Terminal in Helena, Ark., said the company was still loading barges but unable to use its two slackwater harbors, where some of its docks are located.

Spacer barges were being used at docks on the river to get barges out farther into the river for loading. The service also used them last year, he said. Even with that, he said, barges that are normally loaded to 12 feet, 6 inch drafts are only loading to about 9 feet.

“If it stays low, it’s going to impact the whole industry because of delays, groundings and river closures while they dredge,” Ferebee said.

His biggest concerns were about available fleeting areas.

“We have some areas where we normally fleet barges where we cannot because that water isn’t deep enough to fleet there,” he said.

About 30 percent of the company’s available fleeting space had been affected, he said.

Last year, he said, Helena Marine Service did not have to shut down because of low water, but came very close to doing so at one point.

“This year we’ve come real close on our capacity of barges, but fortunately we were able to move some out before that happened,” he said.

Jeff Worsham, port manager at Poinsett Rice and Grain in Osceola, Ark., at Mile 786, said the conditions he is seeing are very similar, with fleeting space being in short supply and barges being loaded to only 9 feet.

Of the facility’s three docks, only one has been operational all fall because of the low water, he said.

“From the weather forecast and the way things look, it’s going to get as bad as things were back in October,” he said. “Right now we’re just loading as hard as we can with what we have.”

Last year, the business shut down on weekends during the low water and closed early on some weekdays. That hasn’t happened this year, Worsham said, crediting experience gained from last year along with pro-active measures such as cutting drafts early and staging empty barges as needed.

“Luckily, unlike in October, everybody’s got everything in the bins now, so it’s not just sitting out there in the fields at Mother Nature’s disposal,” Worsham said. “It may be a little later getting down the river than people want it to, but it’s in the dry, and it will eventually get downriver.”

As far as any other steps that could be taken to help harbors and terminals, Wortham said that by this point he thinks they have all been taken.

“There’s not a whole lot else we can do,” he said. “Pray for rain is about all we can do.”