(Posted Fri. Dec 28th, 2012)

Dec. 28: The coming new year brings intensified shipping difficulties for barge operators on the stretch of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis. With ice on the river’s northernmost stretch reducing water levels already seriously affected by the drought, traffic on the nation’s largest waterway could come to a halt by Friday of next week.

“While the drought is at the core of the current issues on the Mississippi, this situation also highlights the dire need for infrastructure improvements,” said National Corn Growers Association Chairman Garry Niemeyer, a grower from Auburn, Ill. “At NCGA, we have been pushing for upgrades the locks and dams since 1993, but our federal government has failed to respond. If we continue to ignore our infrastructure, we will lose valuable markets.”

Persistent drought has already caused the river to reach low-water points not seen in decades. Despite efforts to keep the waterway open for commerce, such as releasing water reserves from Carlyle Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers expects that new limitations on river traffic will go into place when the river level is projected to drop to three feet at the gauge in Thebes, Ill. on Jan.7. A three-foot gauge in Thebes equates to a ten-oot deep channel, or a nine-foot operating draft on barges.

The National Weather Service’s long-range forecast does not indicate any relief in the near future. Instead, predictions indicate that river levels will continue to fall, causing the river gauge at Thebes to reach one (indicating an eight-foot depth) on Jan. 23.

While the Coast Guard has indicated that the traffic will remain open, both the Waterways Council, Inc., of which NCGA is a member, and the American Waterways Operators, released a statement indicating that placing further limitations on barges would result in a de facto closure as commercial traffic grinds to a halt.

The section of river most impacted by traffic restrictions, a 180-mile stretch from St. Louis to Thebes, presents challenges in addition to low-water levels such as hazardous rock formations and a large bend in the path of the waterway. Impediments lessen past Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge.

The Corps launched two projects in mid-December in an effort to maintain river commerce. On December 15, the Corps began releasing water from Carlyle Lake in Illinois into the river. Designed to increase river navigability, the release is expected to raise water levels six inches by January 6. On December 18, the Corps commenced demolition of the hazardous rock formations approximately two months ahead of schedule. This project, which will not be completed until mid- to late-January at the earliest, began incorporating the use of excavators on barges following a series of explosions last Friday.

The importance of the Mississippi River to agriculture is difficult to understate, with $52 billion in grain and other farmed goods produced in its watershed annually. Allowing the movement of 125 million tons of commodities in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, failure to repair and improve river infrastructure would likely jeopardize the movement of those commodities to market.

Southbound barges on the Mississippi River carry grain destined for world markets. Those barges regularly pass northbound tows with thousands of tons of fertilizer heading to Midwestern ports and, later, to farmers’ fields. With shipping on the Mississippi already impeded and the problem likely to worsen, fertilizer shipments for the 2013 spring planting season could face delays.