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Barge operators lighten loads as Mississippi River levels fall
ST. LOUIS -- As the Midwest's worst drought in 17 years continues to lower inland rivers, Larry Daily and other barge operators shake their heads at sunny skies and hope for rain -- lots of it -- to buoy their cargos, spirits and bottom lines.
"We were supposed to have scattered thunderstorms here today, but I'm looking at nothing but blue skies right now," Daily, president of Alter Barge Line Inc., said from his business in Bettendorf, Iowa.
The summerlong drought has squeezed Alter's fleet of 300 barges and six towboats. Because of lower water levels in the Mississippi River, Alter has had to trim payloads by about six inches per barge -- or about 100 tons apiece -- to shed enough weight to clear shallow spots in the last two weeks.
He figures the lighter loads stand to cost his company about $300,000 per month.
"But we're moving," he said as his crew continued to transport everything from corn and soybeans to cement, steel products, coal and fertilizer up and down the Mississippi, largely between St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn.
Near where the Ohio River hooks up with the Mississippi near Cairo on Illinois' southern tip, several barges ran aground beginning on Sunday. Those vessels have since been cleared and that stretch has reopened on a case-by-case basis with barges allowed to pass if they sit high enough, said Coast Guard Lt. Anthony Baird in Paducah, Ky.
"That's not necessarily a typical trouble area there," Baird said. "The last time we saw low water this severe or extreme was in 1997, then previously in 1988."
Further decline expected
Commercial traffic on the Mississippi ekes on, though any further drop in the water level may make shipping troublesome, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is charged with maintaining a navigational channel at least nine feet deep and 300 feet wide on the river.
Around St. Louis, the National Weather Service forecast Wednesday that the Mississippi's level would continue to decline over the next month. Some potentially strong rainfall was expected in coming days in northwest Missouri, but whether that matters -- feeding into the Missouri River then into the Mississippi River -- depends on the rain's intensity, said Scott Dummer, a weather service hydrologist.
"When it first hits the ground, a lot of it is going to soak into the ground," he said. "What's needed is a sustained rainfall over a couple of days, a good several-inch rainfall."
A Coast Guard advisory Tuesday recommended that deep-draft barges -- those with the heaviest loads -- be moved out of the Upper Mississippi River as soon as possible. Mariners also are urged to be vigilant about repositioned channel-marking buoys.
The corps has been scrambling to keep the Mississippi open, hustling its 247-foot-long dredger up the river to lower the bottom of St. Louis' harbor. The work was expected to be completed Thursday.
A commercial dredge hired by the Corps recently reopened the Kaskaskia River in Illinois and has been sent south to go to work near Cape Girardeau.
River shipping is considered efficient, with a typical inland barge's capacity 15 times greater than a rail car and 60 times more than a semi trailer, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group of barge, tug and tow industry interests.
The low water has been a triple whammy for MEMCO Barge Line, president Mark Knoy said.
Barges with that suburban St. Louis-based company are now covering about 150 miles a day -- not the typical 200 -- to safely sneak through the shallower stretches. Narrower channels have forced 20-barge tows instead of the normal chain of 30.
The company's barges' draft -- the portion of the barge that's below the water's surface -- is also down about 30 inches to 9 feet so that the barges can make it through the shallows. That means less payload and profits for the transporter of grain, raw materials for the steel industry, and coal for MEMCO's corporate parent, Ohio-based American Electric Power.
"There are a ton of multipliers out there that work against us," Knoy said.
Still, he said, the company with 2,200 barges and 55 towboats "will take it as it comes. We'll just reduce drafts, operate with greater caution and pray for rain."