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Critically low water levels on Mississippi River restricts barge traffic



mississippi river barge
Photo by Dirk from San Diego, USA - Mississippi River Barge, CC BY 2.0,)
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Low water levels have caused portions of the Mississippi River to temporarily close, grounding barges and backing up shipping traffic.

“Due to low water levels on the lower Mississippi River (LMR), we have seen an increase in commercial vessel groundings,” said Capt. Eric Carrero, director of Western Rivers and Waterways at the Eighth Coast Guard District. “In response, the Coast Guard established a Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit with our federal, state, local, and maritime industry partners to facilitate safe navigation and the continued flow of commerce along the affected waterways.”

Some loaded barges were required to offload some of their cargo due to draft restriction changes and tow size reductions that have been implemented in recent weeks.

The weather pattern for the next few weeks is expected to continue to favor dry conditions. A shift may come at the end of October, but it may not be enough to bring a long-standing period of relief to the river basins, according to DTN meteorologist John Baranick.

“Unfortunately, widespread moderate to heavy rainfall is not forecast between the Rockies and Appalachians anytime soon,” Baranick said. “A cold front will move through next week and there is potential for widespread scattered showers. But the front will be moving too quickly to produce enough rain to raise levels with any significance.”

In a press release issued on Sept. 30, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it has been monitoring the low water levels along the Mississippi River.

“In addition to the Dredge Potter, we have the Dredge Jadwin from the Vicksburg District working the lower end of the Mississippi and we are using the Dredge Goetz from the St. Paul District to address the Illinois Waterway,” the statement read. “The St. Louis District has also utilized the Louisville District’s contract Dredge Bill Holman.”

The effects of the low water levels are becoming more acute as we enter further into harvest season.

“Barge companies are having to load barges lighter in order to prevent groundings, which have already occurred and are a growing concern. A typical barge can be loaded with 1,500 short tons of freight (50,000 bushels of soybeans). A 15-barge tow can therefore easily accommodate 750,000 bushels of soybeans. Each reduced foot of water depth (i.e. “draft”) will result in 150-200 fewer short tons (5,000-6,700 fewer bushels of soybeans) being loaded per barge,” explained Executive Director Soy Transportation Coalition Mike Steenhoek.

“The situation is fluid and approaching unprecedented territory,” said Thomas Russell with Russell Marine Group. “Expect additional barge draft, tow size restrictions, and ongoing grounding delays. Allow for extra barge transit times. Barge ETA’s will be hit or miss until barges are within two days of New Orleans and past the most problematic low water areas.”

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