Low river yet to have big effect on Southeast Missouri shipping

Friday, July 20, 2012
A towboat navigates Cape Bend on the Mississippi River Thursday, July 19, 2012 south of Cape Girardeau, where the river stage was 11.15 feet. (Fred Lynch)

Drought has affected the river and its traffic, with low water conditions stretching from the length of the Mississippi River's shipping lanes, tightening the width of the river and limiting the amount of cargo in each barge.

Long stretches of shoreline are now exposed, a little over a year after record flooding, shrinking the river's width and affecting the way barges are loaded and navigated. SEMO Port Authority executive director Dan Overbey said the low water levels haven't caused much trouble yet locally, but that forecast drops are ominous.

"Right now we have some problems here and there, and we get around it. But at the rate the river's dropping, we very well could start to see some major difficulties," Overbey said. "Right now boats are still moving, but we're reducing draft and loads to compensate. I imagine some docks are having more problems than we are."

Overbey said loads typically allow for a barge to go 12 feet down in the water, but barges are now loaded with a 9-foot depth in mind. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to dredge the port, which can move 30,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of sand per hour out of the navigation channel, early next week. The SEMO Port Authority has had its share of battles involving dredging the past couple of years, with the corps at one point not funding dredging at the port. But the conflict was resolved last year when dredging was again budgeted.

"Having the corps come in could give us another three or four feet of depth and allow for better movement in the water," Overbey said. "When the river gets down into the 11- or 12-foot territory, we get some sliding and it gets tough to even load. The dredging gives us all a little extra wiggle room."

An old river gauge remains at the Cape Girardeau riverfront where the river stage was 11.15 feet Thursday, July 19, 2012. (Fred Lynch)

The Pemiscot County Port Authority, south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, also hasn't experienced significant low-water problems yet.

The Mississippi River gauge at Cape Girardeau stood at 11.4 feet Thursday, a fall of more than a foot since Sunday. National Weather Service predictions call for a continuing drop through the week, and levels falling some 4.5 feet over the next 28 days unless significant rains come soon.

The record low river level at Cape Girardeau was set Jan. 15, 1909, when the gauge read 0.6 feet. A zero reading on the river gauge is not an indication the river has no water. Instead, the gauge level is an arbitrary mark set to describe extremely low water.

National Weather Service hydrologist Mary Lamm said a general lack of rain in the Ohio River valley and the north Mississippi River basin is the main culprit behind low water levels. Cape Girardeau is more than 10 inches below normal for rainfall for the year, the weather service said.

"The water is steadily dropping, and at this point you have to just hope for some rain," Lamm said. "Of course, you're not going to get in a situation where you look down and see the bottom of the river, but it's still far from the normal low season measurements."

A drop in snowfall levels over the northern plains this winter is also part of the problem, Lamm said. Less snow means less water from melted snow making its way into the Mississippi and the rivers that feed it. However, thanks to extensive work on the river since 1988 and some timely rain this week, the U.S. Coast Guard has ruled out any danger of a river shutdown anytime soon. But they are urging vessels that run deep to take precautions on the Upper Mississippi River.

Missouri Dry Docks and Consolidated Grain and Barge have said the low river hasn't affected business, and they don't expect it to in the near future.

"It may be low, but the way the river is, you never know how levels will affect things," said Dan Coomer, manager of Consolidated Grain and Barge in Scott City. "Some years you can ship down to 3 feet, some years you can go only to 11 feet. Right now we're fine, and I'm pretty sure we'll be OK through the summer."

The low river levels have made trouble in surrounding areas, and caused the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to close the Hickman, Ky., harbor for the ferry that runs to Mississippi County, Mo. Public information officer Keith Todd said the harbor will remain closed until the Cairo, Ill., Ohio River gauge, which sat at 9.6 feet and dropping Thursday, reads 13 feet.

"It's been closed for a few weeks and will stay that way until the river comes up quite a bit," Todd said. "I'm not expecting that soon after seeing the forecast levels."

Since a major drought in 1988, extensive work to add dikes and other rock structures has helped the river stay scoured even in low-water conditions, according to the corps. Low water is normal this time of year, but extended drought makes management tougher. In 1988, a study estimated the drought caused a 20 percent income loss for the country's barge industry.

"This causes things to tighten up and means some boats will be light loading. But really, these are minor effects. We're still moving well within the shipping channels," corps spokesman Donald Mayer said. "Closures aren't in play, and typically wouldn't happen unless we drop several more feet. That's a drastic measure, and we're not close to it."

According to the corps, more than 500 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. Grain, corn, soybeans and milo are shipped out on the river, and commodities like gasoline are delivered through the port authority.

"We are actually running ahead of last year overall," Overbey said. "So far the low water has been manageable. Now, we just have to pray for good luck and a good rain."



Pertinent address:

10 Bill Bess Drive, Scott City, MO

Hickman, KY

111 E. Third St., Caruthersville, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: