During 28 years on the Mississippi River, Jim Pierce has seen the river rage and he's seen it act lazy. When the river gets lazy, Pierce gets busy.
The river is in one of its lazy periods now, with low water on the stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., limiting the number of barges towboats can push and the amount of cargo in each barge.
Pierce of Fruitland captains the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge Potter, which can move 30,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of sand per hour out of the navigation channel. On Monday, the Potter was stationed at Gray's Point, a river bend just south of the SEMO Port Authority, where low water is narrowing the barge channel.
"We are close to where we were in 1988," he said, referring to the year low water stranded hundreds of towboats near Greenville, Miss.
Extensive work in the river since that extreme drought year and timely rain last week --especially in the Ohio River Valley -- rule out any danger of a river shutdown anytime soon. But the U.S. Coast Guard last week urged vessels that run deep to leave the Upper Mississippi River, and towboat operators were told to limit their tows to 36 northbound barges, with only 20 loaded.
The sharp bends in the river are the spots most likely to have shallower, narrower channels, Pierce said.
Getting loaded barges ready to move also will become more difficult due to the low water. "We are going to see a lot of problems in the harbors, and we are working our way north now so if a problem arises in the St. Louis area we can respond to it," he said.
The Mississippi River gauge at Cape Girardeau stood at 7.94 feet late Monday, a rise of almost 6 inches in 24 hours. National Weather Service predictions call for a continuing rise until Thursday and then falling levels unless significant rains come soon.
The record low river level at Cape Girardeau was set on Jan. 15, 1909, when the gauge read 0.6 feet.
Zero on a river gauge doesn't mean the river has no water. Instead, the gauge level is an arbitrary mark set to describe extremely low water.
From St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., Mississippi River traffic relies on water from the Missouri River to support navigation. But a six-year drought forced the Corps of Engineers to shorten the barge season on the Missouri River. By mid-November, the corps predicts that the river gauge at St. Louis will be minus 4 feet. At that level, keeping a barge channel open becomes much more difficult, the corps said.
The dredge Potter is a "hydraulic dust pan" powered by twin 16-cylinder Caterpillar diesel engines. The 1,200-horsepower engines generate electricity to turn an 84-inch propeller that sucks the river sediment shoveled up by the dust pan through a 36-inch pipe. The sediment is discharged through an 800-foot long 32-inch pipe and deposited outside the navigation channel.
The 47-member crew works 24 hours a day. On Monday morning, operator Wayne Schreckenberg used modern global positioning monitors to keep the dredge on a straight line as it cut through the sediment at 500 feet per hour.
Each crew member works six hours on, six hours off for seven or eight days straight, then gets several days off, Pierce said. "I couldn't ask for a better crew, though sometimes they get a little rowdy," he said.
Life on a dredge means four or five days in one spot, then moving on. Decisions on where to go are made in St. Louis based on where a spotter boat has found sediment deposits, Pierce said. "We just chase it along, trying to get it moved out of the way," he said.
The Potter is named after Charles Lewis Potter, president of the Missouri River Commission from 1920 to 1928. It was launched in 1932 as a steam-powered dredge and converted to diesel in 2001. The Potter costs $50,000 a day to operate.
Since the 1988 drought, extensive work to add dikes and other rock structures has helped the river keep itself scoured even in low-water conditions, according to information supplied by the corps.
Low water is normal this time of year, but an extended drought is making management of the river tough. "We are really kind of living rainstorm to rainstorm," said Nicole Dalrymple, spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers office in St. Louis. "The rainstorm last week gave us a bit of a bump."
More than 300 million tons of commodities travel up and down the river each year, and 60 percent of the U.S. agricultural exports move by barge past St. Louis. Keeping the river open is vital to farmers and consumers in Southeast Missouri. Grain, mostly corn, soybeans and milo -- grain sorghum -- are shipped out on the river, and commodities like gasoline are delivered through the SEMO Port Authority in Scott City.
"We are actually overall year to date running ahead of last year," said Dan Overbey, executive director of the SEMO Port Authority. So far the low water "has been manageable," he said.
Last fall, Hurricane Katrina closed the port of New Orleans for several weeks, and rapidly rising fuel prices cut deeply into the prices farmers were paid for their grain when delivered for shipping. This year, the Gulf Coast ports are operating close to normal, fuel prices have eased and grain prices are rising, said John Sutton, manager at Consolidated Grain and Barge in Scott City.
Last year at this time, farmers who chose to sell were being paid about $1.50 to $1.55 per bushel of corn, a price that was depressed because shipping costs were averaging about 70 cents a bushel, Sutton said. This year, even with shipping costs at 45 cents a bushel, farmers were paid $3.23 a bushel for corn delivered Monday, he said.
"The grain market has just went wild," Sutton said. "It has rebounded over the last 30 days, which is unusual at harvest time."
He attributes the increase to heavy foreign demand.
Sutton is happy to have the dredge Potter widening the channel, because 99 percent of the grain he buys is destined for export.
River levels have a big impact on his profits, but he doesn't want any rain here to ruin the harvest. "The best for my end is a little selfish," he said. "I want the rain up north to raise the river but I don't want rain here so farmers can get the crop out."
335-6611, extension 126