Despite drought, Mississippi 4 feet below flood stage

Saturday, September 1, 2007

There's plenty of water available in Southeast Missouri, just not where farmers need it most.

The Mississippi River rose to almost 28 feet, four feet below flood stage, Friday at Cape Girardeau. That's a rise of 16 feet in nine days. A flow gauge at Thebes, Ill., late Friday recorded three times the average volume of water in the river than is normally seen this time of year.

All that is good news for farmers seeking to ship grain downstream, but it does little to help those looking for moisture to finish off crops such as soybeans planted late in the spring.

A little over two weeks ago, low water was threatening to close some ports and forcing restricted loads at others. After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reallocated funds to dredge harbors at Caruthersville, Mo., New Madrid, Mo., and Scott City, the directors of the local port authorities lobbied for fast action during a Mississippi River Commission meeting in Cape Girardeau.

And while dredging began Friday evening at the SEMO Port in Scott City, port director Dan Overbey said, other ports will be waiting up to three weeks.

The rise in water levels "has made it a lot easier on everybody," said Timmie Lynn Hunter, director of the port authority for New Madrid County.

High water now can't be counted on to last, she said. Traditionally, water flows are low at the end of the growing season. "It is deep now and it probably will be for a week or two. We are not really sure," Hunter said. "It is a little bit important for them to get in here as fast as they can."

Rains over Iowa, Minnesota and northern Illinois earlier this month produced flooding and, as that water flowed south, filled the river. That's made shipping easier, but an enormous corn harvest expected across the farm belt will be costly to move.

The rates have gotten so high, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, wants to know whether farmers are being gouged. She asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate why shipping costs are so high. The price demanded by shippers is as high as $1.17 for a bushel of soybeans and 85 cents for a bushel of corn, Emerson said.

Those figures are much more than the 70 cents per bushel charged in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, when fuel prices spiked and the port at New Orleans was closed for several weeks. The prices fell to about 45 cents a bushel last year.

"They are at very high rates," agreed Paul Thell, farm service group manager for Cargill. "Barges are in short supply."

One reason for the barge shortage is the space needed to move corn. An acre of corn produces, on average, three to five times as many bushels of grain as an acre planted in soybeans. Shipping costs have come down a little since Emerson requested an inquiry, Thell said. "It is just the overall supply and demand."

335-6611, extension 126

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