Missouri River Navigators Meet In Jefferson City, Mo.

The annual Missouri River Navigators Meeting took place in Jefferson City, Mo., on February 22. As usual, a “pre-meeting” was held the day before, on February 21 from 1:30 to 5 p.m. This pre-meeting, hosted by the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River and the Missouri Soybean Association, was at the Missouri Farm Bureau building in Jefferson City. This gathering afforded navigators a chance to delve in-depth into areas and items of concern with representatives of the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard, discussion  potentially limited by available time at the main meeting the next day.

A reception was held at the Holiday Inn & Suites, Jefferson City, at 6 p.m., following the pre-meeting. This reception was sponsored by AgriServices of Brunswick, Missouri River Towing, Capital Sand Company, Gateway Dredging & Contracting and Gallagher Insurance, Risk Management & Consulting.

The main meeting began at 8 a.m. on February 22, also at the Missouri Farm Bureau building, and was hosted by the Farm Bureau and the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River (CPMR). Farm Bureau representatives made opening remarks, followed by Dan Engemann and Shane Kinne, executive director of CPMR.

An industry panel followed, including Doug Bonderer, AgriServices of Brunswick; Capt. Michael Carpenter, Magnolia Marine; Capt. Steve Engemann, Missouri River Towing; Mindy Brundick, Budrovich; and Jeremy Greer of Ray County Stone. Each spoke about strengths and challenges that they saw on the Missouri this past season. Bonderer shared that AgriServices had received an $11 million Maritime Administration grant that will go toward improvements at its multi-modal facility at Mile 256.

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Carpenter said that Magnolia had handled some 750,000 barrels of heavy-oil cargo on the Missouri in 2023 but had to do so at a reduced draft due to low-water conditions. Magnolia is now the only tank barge operator running on the Missouri and has even had some specialized equipment built to service the stream.

Engemann shared that Missouri River Towing had moved some 200 million ton-miles on the Missouri last season, and that he had found that the channel is now much more reliable than it has been in some past years, but he stressed the need for a reliable channel line that all boats cand follow to help keep the channel washed out.

Brundick said that low water was Budrovich’s No. 1 one challenge last year, making it hard at times, and even impossible, to reach the training structures that the firm was tasked to work on. Budrovich is a subcontractor for the Corps, working on stone placement for Midwest Construction.

Greer said that Ray County Stone is a family-owned quarry that is new to servicing the river and has a dock at Mile 342. The company is excited about the possibilities of working on the river and is looking forward to expansion, he said.

Corps Of Engineers

Brig. Gen. Geoff Van Epps, commander of the Northwestern Engineer Division, made opening remarks on behalf of the Corps. He noted the essential role that elected officials play in providing the monetary resources that his organization needs to get its work done. He said that this is the big reason that channel work on the Missouri was trending in the right direction.

He also touted the partnerships between the Corps and organizations such as the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) working together toward a common goal. The Corps has been on the Missouri since 1907 and is committed to working to improve the Missouri system, which is critical to the national and regional economy, he said. He specifically mentioned the importance of Missouri River flows to areas below, such as the Lower Mississippi River.

Coast Guard

Cmdr. Dan Every, deputy sector commander of Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River, made opening remarks for that agency, and he also had with him Lt. Cmdr. Richard Cherkauer, Waterways Division chief, and BMCM Kraig McClellan, officer in charge of the buoy tender Gasconade. Every spoke about the low-water crisis experienced by most of the waterways in America over the past year. He reported that all of the cutters are expected to be in operation for this season.  McClellan went over the proposed schedule for the Gasconade for the coming navigation season and said that the boat will devote 100 percent of its time to the Missouri. Those attending expressed that it was welcome news to hear that an emphasis was being placed on repairing and maintaining shore aids, and that this work did not have to wait for the Gasconade, but that teams in small boats would be working on that task.

The age of the tender fleet was discussed, and the Coast Guard presented an anticipated replacement schedule for the current tenders of Sector Upper Miss. The Gasconade is scheduled to be replaced in Fiscal Year 2026, the Sangamon in FY 2028, the Cheyenne in FY 29 and the Wyaconda in FY 2031.The Coast Guard is also working to reduce aids to navigation “constellation” and to increase assets in order to serve the area better.

Representatives of the Eighth District Coast Guard Bridge Branch detailed ongoing bridge projects at the Buck O’Neil bridge at Kansas City, Mile 366.2, and Rocheport, Mile 185. A proposed new bridge at Liberty Bend, Mile 352.7, to be built below the existing bridges, was discussed, along with one being proposed at Leavenworth, Mile 397.6.

Levi Woods, administrator of freight and waterways for the Missouri Department of Transportation, gave an update regarding new port authorities and Missouri investment in infrastructure. He also noted that $938,000 had been provided as a non-federal match for the Lower Missouri River Study currently underway.

Mark Fuchs, senior service hydrologist of the NOAA Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, gave a review of climate conditions and outlook. Fuchs pointed out that there is still a significant drought going on throughout the Missouri Valley. The mountain runoff is projected to be below normal, and flood risk going into the 2024 season is below normal. The risk of minor flooding due to thunderstorm activity is likely below Kansas City.

Colleen Roberts of the Kansas City Engineer District gave an overview and update of the Lower Missouri River Flood Risk and Resiliency Study. This was described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity as four states came together in the aftermath of the 2019 flood. The impetus is to develop a systemwide plan to reduce flood risk and improve system resiliency. This study involves 735 river miles with site-specific feasibility studies prior to completion of the plan. These studies began in 2021 and are expected to continue into 2027.

Ginger Niemann-Harper covered the Lower Missouri Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project Study. This study is a tiered approach to achieve the “right level of detail to address concerns that have been voiced by navigation partners and stakeholders.” The ultimate goal is to create a more reliable navigation channel. Some existing conditions that impact operations and maintenance are that 410,000 tons of rock are required annually to maintain a safe and reliable channel, but historically the O&M budget only allows the placement of 160,000-200,000 tons. It is hoped that the study may also identify areas where the channel can be maintained in a more cost-effective manner. This study is also expected to conclude in 2027.

Sarah Graff, from the office of U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, gave a congressional update to the group, followed by Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, who stressed that the river system in the state is important to many industries, but “most important to agriculture.”

John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division gave a report for that division. He went over the Missouri River Mainstem System, noting that life safety was the priority, and listing the eight authorized purposes for the system: flood control, navigation, water supply, hydropower, water quality control, recreation, irrigation and fish and wildlife. He specifically mentioned that the system “is not authorized to operate for Mississippi River benefits.” Remus gave a sobering 2024 outlook for the navigation season with plains snowpack below average and Upper Basin Runoff at only 73 percent of average. The service level at the start of the navigation season on April 1 is expected to be 1,500 cfs. below full service.  It is projected that the service level after July 1 will be closer to minimum service levels, though a full eight-month season is anticipated.

Dane Morris, program manager for the Kansas City District Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, gave a report on it. This project began in 2020 and is in Phase 3. When this project began, water levels had dropped after 2 1/2 years, revealing many shoal areas and damaged structures. Since that time, 53 percent of identified repair needs have been completed, with 3.7 million tons of stone placed, 280,000 tons of debris removed and 500 training structures repaired. The project is looking forward to transitioning from flood recovery to sustainable long-term operation and maintenance. Low-water hazard mitigation consisting of bedrock and debris removal continue.

Chuck McWilliams of the Missouri River Project Office in the Omaha Engineer District gave the report for that area. The Omaha District had an active commercial season and received an additional $15 million in funds to effect repairs. Contractors placed some 350,000 tons of stone in making structure repairs between Omaha and Rulo, Neb. New O&M contracts in 2023 awarded $36.7 million for placement of an additional 340,000 tons of stone to make repairs between Sioux City, Iowa, and Rulo.

Director Dru Buntin and State Hydrologist Bob Bacon represented the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The Lower Missouri River Study was again discussed in this session, and then talk turned to the ongoing drought conditions. It was said that a split season was briefly considered for the navigation season, whereby flow support would be cut in the middle of the nav season, rather than providing support all the way through. It had been decided not to advance that plan. In other areas the Department had offered to help the Coast Guard in dayboard maintenance.

The final segment of the information-packed day was a presentation from Joe Bonneau, Missouri River Recovery Program manager. The three components of this program consist of: compliance; fish and wildlife mitigation; and the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC). A Biological Opinion from 2018 included requirements to construct spawning habitat and interception and rearing complexes for the pallid sturgeon in the lower river area. This species has been at the forefront of environmental concerns on the Missouri for years, but recent studies show that the population is not as badly off it as it once was. A 1984 report estimated that 522,000 acres of aquatic and terrestrial habitat were lost by construction of the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project of the Missouri. The Corps has been authorized by previous WRDA bills to acquire and develop 166,750 acres of fish and wildlife habitat to offset losses. Approximately 40 percent of this area has been acquired within the meander belt between Sioux City and St. Louis.

Col. Travis Rayfield, commander of the Kansas City Engineer District, made closing comments with final remarks by Shane Kinne of CPMR.