Low water could stall barge shipments

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Barges passed Cape Rock going north on the Mississippi River Monday afternoon, August 13, 2007. A continued drought could drastically affect river traffic later this summer and fall. (Kit Doyle)

Timely rains in Iowa and northern Illinois pushed the Mississippi River up 4 feet at Cape Girardeau over the past two days but not enough to allay concerns that continuing drought could result in problems moving the enormous corn crop that will be harvested in the coming two months.

Low water south of Cairo, Ill., forced the closure of port facilities in Car-uthersville, Mo., Hickman, Ky., and Memphis, Tenn. At the port in New Madrid, Mo., barges were being loaded lighter than normal to prevent grounding on sandbars, port authority director Timmie Lynn Hunter said.

On Friday and Saturday, low water flows out of the Ohio River forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to send a dredge to clear silt so barges could travel in both rivers.

Water levels are 8 feet deeper than they were at this time last year. But with an early October timetable from the corps for ending navigation support on the Missouri River and low flows out of the Ohio River, grain shipments could become an issue, port operators said.

The U.S. corn crop is estimated to be 13.1 billion bushels, the largest since 1933, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of that grain will be moved to New Orleans for export via barge lines on the Mississippi River.

Low water issues and other public concerns about the river will be up for discussion Monday on the Cape Girardeau riverfront when the Mississippi River Commission holds a public hearing on board the Corps's towboat M/V Mississippi.

"Citizens are free to speak about whatever issue they want to talk about," said Patti Gage, administrative officer with the commission.

The lack of regular funding for dredging ports will be on Hunter's mind, she said. The New Madrid County Port Authority has never been closed because of low water, flooding or ice, she said. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced late Monday afternoon that the corps had allocated unused funds to dredge the SEMO Port Authority port south of Cape Girardeau as well as ports at New Madrid and Caruthersville. The corps will spend $85,000 dredging at the SEMO port, $366,000 to dredge out the Caruthersville port and $317,000 at New Madrid.

But those funds were not part of regular congressional appropriations and they should be, Hunter said.

"Our harbor cannot survive without that," Hunter said. "We do not have the funds."

Port operators have been worried about the potential shipping tie-ups since the river began receding from high water experienced in May after a single heavy rainstorm in Nebraska sent Missouri River floodwaters downstream. "We have been calling our legislators for a couple of months," Hunter said. "Normally we don't get to this point where it is this bad."

On Monday afternoon, the water volume of the Mississippi River was 171,000 cubic feet per second at Thebes, Ill. About half that water is from the discharge of the Missouri River north of St. Louis. By mid-October, the Missouri River's share will be dramatically less, as the corps cuts off support for navigation flows early because of an ongoing drought in the upper Great Plains. Also, the corps expects water levels to stabilize at the Lake of the Ozarks, resulting in reduced water releases that also support the Missouri, said June Jeffries, a hydrological engineer at the Corps' St. Louis District office.

"Without significant precipitation by next week we could be starting to approach some lower stages," Jeffries said. "And it doesn't take much drop in flow to go even lower. A small change in flow at these lower stages has a big effect."

In 2005, the Cargill facility at Buffalo Island in New Madrid was forced to store grain on the ground when Hurricane Katrina shut down the port at New Orleans for several weeks. This year, the problem won't be a closed port but an enormous increase in the amount of grain harvested.

Paul Thell, farm service group manager for Cargill, said the company has added new storage bins and moved other grain to make room, but he didn't rule out the possibility of storing grain on the ground again.

On the day after the Mississippi River Commission hearing, the Corps will hold a public meeting in St. Louis to discuss environmental issues in a seven-mile stretch of river from Cape Rock to just south of Cape Girardeau and near Thebes, Ill. The meeting will discuss the models the corps will build at its St. Louis laboratory to study sedimentation.

"The primary purpose is to get some environmental diversity in that stretch of the river and there are some ancillary things to be addressed as well," she said.

But as the river recedes during the fall, farmers, barge operators and port managers will keep an eye on the weather map. The river's worst year was 1988, when the river was closed for a week in several places. "That has not happened since and we don't think it is going to happen," said Jim Pogue, spokesman for the corps' Memphis office.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

---Want to go?

* What: Missouri River Commission public hearing

* When: 9 a.m., Monday Aug. 20

* Where: Downtown river front on board the M/V Mississippi

* Also: Tour the M/V Mississippi during an open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the downtown riverfront. The M/V Mississippi is the Corps' largest diesel towboat and flagship of the Mississippi River Commission.

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