Mississippi River Careens From Floods to Low Water, Threatening Barge Traffic

Date: Wednesday, August 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

Low water levels on the Mississippi River are threatening to disrupt commerce for a second consecutive year, months after cities along the vital economic artery saw floodwaters test their sandbag barriers and containment walls.

Water levels in St. Louis and Memphis are 10 to 20 feet lower at this point in the year than in 2020 and 2019 due to lack of rain. Parched soils have absorbed moisture instead of letting it run off into the river, though recent downpours have helped, said Lisa Parker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division.

While record snowfall in Minnesota this past winter engorged the Mississippi when it melted quickly in April, years of drought have depleted the river that courses through 10 states and impeded barges that traverse it carrying goods such as soybeans, corn, chemicals and gas.

“We’ve really seen this ebb and flow—this dramatic ebb and flow—this last year more than we’ve seen in years past,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, which includes 13 state soybean boards.

More than half of soybeans grown in the U.S. are exported, the majority traveling down the lower Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun monitoring water levels and has 16 dredges operating on the Mississippi River to keep the water channel and harbors deep enough for transit.

It has built an underwater structure called a sill in Louisiana, where some communities including New Orleans draw drinking water from the Mississippi, to prevent saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico from moving upstream while water levels are low. The Corps has previously built sills in 2022, 2012, 1999 and 1988.

Low water levels on the Mississippi River last fall contributed to $20 billion in economic losses, according to an AccuWeather estimate. Some barges were grounded on sandbars. Other vessels lightened their loads to keep them from sitting too low in the water, which increased transportation costs for farmers and others.

The Corps dredged 12 to 18 hours a day to keep the water channel open. At one point, there were more ships waiting off the Gulf and East Coasts for goods than there were containerships idling off Long Beach, Calif.

Tracy Zea, president and chief executive officer of the Waterways Council, which represents river shipping interests, is hopeful water levels won’t be as low as last fall.

The extreme variations in water levels are affected by a number of factors, including a changing climate, nearby land development, and the recurring cycles of drier and warmer or wetter and colder conditions known as El Niño and La Niña, experts in the river system said.

The way the river has been engineered—the addition of levees, for example—has also increased flood risks, according to multiple studies.

“Climate change is in there,” said Nicholas Pinter, a University of California, Davis professor who has extensively researched rivers and watersheds. But “it’s smaller than the impacts of levees and navigational infrastructure on portions of the Mississippi River.”

Companies that use Germany’s Rhine River for transit have explored low-water barges and trains to navigate frequent low-water levels.

Bob Criss, a professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis and critic of the Corps’ management of the river, said U.S. goods should also be moved by rail because locks and dams used to make the Mississippi River navigable create a slow-moving, deep channel that has changed the environment.

“The Mississippi River from St. Louis all the way to New Orleans was twice as wide as it is now,” he said. “It was full of islands and sandbars, which are habitat for birds and everything else.”

“The barges do not pay for the river maintenance,” he said, of their cost-effectiveness. “They pay nothing for the dredging.”

Parker, with the Corps, said it has habitat restoration efforts and is environmentally concerned. Zea said locks and dams benefit other users of inland waterways, not just barges.

U.S. barge and transportation industry representatives say it is unlikely there will be a shift to favor land transit over water.

“It’s just such an efficient way of moving heavy products long distances,” said Steenhoek, with the Soy Transportation Coalition.

About 500 million tons of goods, worth more than $158 billion, are transported on inland U.S. waterways each year, Zea said. The vessels are more fuel-efficient than trucks or trains. One barge can carry the load of 70 fully loaded semitrucks.

Farmers whose fields are within 100 miles of the Mississippi River typically drive their crops to a grain terminal where they get loaded onto barges, shipped to the Gulf, moved to an ocean vessel and then sent overseas, Zea said, describing a typical agricultural route.

When water levels are too high, grain elevators along the river can be surrounded by floodwaters and unable to take deliveries from farmers. During poor river conditions, those without a place to store corn or other crops—which must be quickly harvested when ripe—might opt to drive it to an elevator further away or sell it locally, to an ethanol plant or chicken-processing facility, for example, Steenhoek said.

When water levels are too low, barges won’t fully load their vessels, increasing transportation costs.

That ate into last year’s profits for soybean farmer Dave Walton and his son, who together raise soybeans, corn, hay and cattle on 1,000 acres in Wilton, Iowa, about 15 miles from the river.

“Last year we were worried about drought and low water,” he said. “This spring we had an exceptionally high flood event that lasted for four weeks, so transportation’s cut off during that period.”

“Now,” he said, “we’re talking about drought again.”


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