NPR Story
8:49 am
Mon January 14, 2013

Low water, high anxiety on the Mississippi

Originally published on Tue January 15, 2013 1:55 pm

It seems like we’re constantly hearing about how the worst drought in decades is threatening barge shipping on the Mississippi River. 

One day we’re facing a shutdown, the next day they say commerce will keep rolling on the river.  

Here’s the latest: The Army Corp of Engineers says it’s done enough work to keep the waterway open until the end of this month.   

After that, though, no one is making any promises, and that uncertainty is giving the shipping industry a lingering headache and could end up with local companies cutting jobs.   

A Big Slowdown 

The headquarters of JB Marine, a barge repair company in south St. Louis County, are actually built on top of an old barge and lately everything is a little off, paperwork is sliding off desks, walls are cracking.  

The river has receded so much that the floating office is now completely out of the water and sitting off kilter on a sandbar. 

Terry Douglas, a big guy with long white hair wearing a sleeveless Harley jean jacket, schedules repair work.

“Traffic has slowed down a lot, not a lot of it's coming through here,” Douglas says.  “A lot of it's being held up down south.”  

That’s what the drought has done to the shipping business. 

It hasn’t shut down operations, but things have been thrown out of whack and that has the whole industry feeling antsy about what’s to come. 

Lingering Uncertainty 

“They’re concerned about what it means for their employees, what it means for their bottom line,” says  Ann McCulluh, a spokeswoman for American Waterways Operators, an advocacy group for the barge shipping industry. “I think you will see greater impacts on small businesses that make their living up and down the river. I think those have the potential to be hit pretty hard.”   

It’s that kind of anxiety that has Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) standing on a levee near America’s Central Port in Granite City.  

He says constant dredging combined with rock removal and little extra water from Carlyle Lake east of St. Louis will keep the river in business this month.  

But there’s one big caveat. 

“Some of those that are using the barges are not loading them as heavy as they’re used to, so that they sit a little higher in the water,” Durbin says. “That means it’s going to be a little more expensive moving some of these commodities until this all clears.” 

Even though there’s enough water to maintain the minimum level needed for barge traffic, many shippers say they require a little extra cushion to carry the kind of loads they would in a normal year.

In some instances, shippers say reduced payloads can mean losses of more than 30 percent per shipment. 

Low water is also taking a toll on their equipment.

A Withered Bottom Line

Back at JB Marine bright blue sparks dance from the flame of a welding torch.

A worker is busy putting back together something called a spud, a big metal spike that works like an anchor for barges.

The massive metal rod got bent out of shape when a tugboat got stuck in low water.

You would think all the vessels beat up by the drought-starved river would be great for a barge repair business. 

Chief Financial Officer, Dave Heyl, says that simply hasn’t been the case.

“Our business is off by around 20 to 25 percent right now,” Heyl says.

He says less traffic on the river means there’s fewer barges to repair in the first place and that’s been keeping him up at night. 

“Our employees are very important to us,” Heyl says. “We hope to not have any layoffs, but if there’s no work we won’t have an option.”

Uncertain Future  

Heyl and the rest of the barge industry want the Army Corps of Engineers to feed the Mississippi with a little more water from reservoirs on the upper Missouri River.    

It can take weeks to get barges up and down the river and they say only that water can give them the assurances they need to keep commerce moving.         

Big agriculture is on the edge of its collective seat, too. Billions of dollars of crops flow down the river and there are international contracts to fill.     

Farmers are watching the situation closely.  Normally fertilizers used in spring planting are shipping up the river this time of year, but load restrictions due to low water have reduced the size of those shipments.   That, in turn, is likely to raise input costs across the corn-belt.   

The Corps, however, has been unwilling to tap reservoirs on the upper Missouri River.    

Cautious Optimism    

This weekend contractors working for the Corps completed a project to deepen the shipping channel on a particularly treacherous stretch of the river south of St. Louis near Thebes, Ill.  

Even though Corps Spokesperson Mike Peterson thinks there’s reason for optimism, he says they aren’t out of the woods yet.  

“Historically, February, we usually do start to see some rise out of the river," Peterson says.  "But we are dealing with a drought, so we’re always keeping our eye on the worst case scenario.  We’re hoping for the best and definitely trying to meet nature halfway.”  

The U.S. Coast Guard says that recent rains and work by the Corps will keep barges moving until the end of the month.

Now contractors will continue work to widen the channel, and shippers will at least temporary be able to carry heavier loads thanks to recent rains.  A  spokesman for the Coast Guard, however, says those restrictions are likely to be put back in place in the coming days.   

Ultimately, the only real fix for the ongoing water woes is rain, lots and lots of rain.  If the river does not behave like it normally does and levels don’t rise in February, talk of a possible shutdown could return as early as next month.   

The Mighty, Moody Mississippi

Between the spring of 2011 and the start of 2013 the Mississippi River has swung between massive flooding and near record-low water levels. The below chart shows every river gauge reading at St. Louis between May 7, 2011 and Jan. 8, 2013. Run your cursor over the blue line for each river gauge reading and go here to interact with a larger version of the below chart.

Data Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Note: The river gauge is not the measure of total water in the river, rather, it is based on historic water levels. A negative reading on the river gauge does not mean the river has run dry. 

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd

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