Low water, silt from 2011 flooding causing problems for Mississippi River ports

Monday, August 27, 2012
A barge heads north on the Mississippi River on Sunday afternoon near Trail of Tears State Park. (Laura Simon)

The Mississippi River's near-record low water levels are making shipping a challenge at Southeast Missouri ports, but they're likely to remain open for now.

The river gauge at Cape Girardeau sat at 6.99 feet at 9 p.m. Sunday, and while low, it's still several feet above the 0.60-foot record set in January 1909.

Still, it's low enough to cause lots of problems.

As the historic drought continues in the Midwest, flooding last year may have actually worsened the situation on the Mississippi River by leaving deposits of silt and debris in areas that would normally be clear.

"When you have a flood, it deposits sediment in new and interesting places," said Mike Petersen, public affairs chief for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Fortunately, he said, the corps received additional funding for dredging the river this year as part of a post-flood disaster appropriation from Congress.

Anticipating low water problems, they began dredging operations about a month earlier than usual this year, Petersen said.

SEMO Port has already been dredged, which is the main reason it's still open, director Dan Overbey said.

"A lot of real estate has moved down the river, and it's been deposited in different places," Overbey said. It took the dredge boat about a week to clean out the harbor at SEMO Port, he said.

Still, some facilities at the port are having trouble loading barges to their maximum capacity. The draft -- the distance between the water line and the bottom of a barge's hull -- has been cut back from the standard 12 feet to 8 or 9 feet.

"Fortunately, they're coping, but if you cut the draft from 12 feet to 8 feet, you're losing a third of your cargo and it still costs close to the same to run that boat down the river. Your cost per ton goes up, and that will hit folks in the pocketbook," Overbey said.

The New Madrid Port has been unable to get barges in or out since July 31 due to low water, said Timmie Lynn Hunter, port director.

On Sunday, its river level was at -4.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The number is negative because it is below the zero point established for that gauge.

The three companies located there have continued to operate and have not laid off any employees, she said.

One company is loading barges at the city dock. Others have used trucks or rail in order to keep operating.

"Our harbor has never been closed before. We never closed during the high water last year. This is a first for us," Hunter said.

The corps wasn't scheduled to dredge at New Madrid until Sept. 3, but Hunter was informed Friday by the corps that the dredge would arrive over the weekend.

"One end of our harbor is just mud," Hunter said. "You can't even get a johnboat in it."

The New Madrid Port is below the Birds Point levee, which was breached in May 2011 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We got some of that debris in our harbor, and it silted in even more," Hunter said. "Last year, there were only two harbors in the Memphis District that got dredging, us and Memphis, but there wasn't enough money to dredge our whole harbor."

Last year, the dredge operated for two days, but this year will be there for five days, she said.

The National Weather Service's extended streamflow prediction shows the water level in New Madrid to continue to drop to -5.9 feet by Sept. 21 and to 5.6 feet in Cape Girardeau.

Petersen said the last time the Mississippi was this low was in the late 1980s. Advancements in river engineering and the use of river training structures, or dikes, has helped preserve the channel, he said.

"We're in better shape going into this than we were before," Petersen said.

The structures aren't used as much on the lower Mississippi River, because south of Cairo, Ill., the Ohio River typically provides additional water flow sufficient enough to maintain navigation.

Last week, barge traffic came to a halt when a barge was grounded in Greenville, Miss. A total of 29 barge tows were waiting to head south, and 34 were in line to go north when the river reopened Thursday.

Looking at long-range forecasts, Petersen said there isn't much relief in sight.

"We're hoping for a wet fall and a lot of snowpack in the winter," he said.

Some of the lowest water levels could be seen this winter, when a series of reservoirs on the Missouri River will cut back their releases, Petersen said.

This is done each winter to store up water that will be released to aid in navigation during the second half of the year.

mmiller@semissourian.com

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