Low River Gets Some Relief

Closure Is Forestalled—for Now—on Drought-Stricken Stretch of the Mississippi

Wall Street Journal
13 January 2013
By Caroline Porter

ST. LOUIS—Emergency rock blasting on a portion of the Mississippi River and a change in weather is giving the Army Corps of Engineers increasing confidence it can keep the river—a major conduit of bulk materials like grains, fertilizer and fuel oil—open to shippers through spring.

But the news, while welcomed by shippers and others that rely on the river, offers only temporary relief. The shipping lanes remain historically shallow and a closing could be in the offing if expected rains don't arrive.

Severe drought has dropped river levels close to the 9-foot level that would ordinarily prompt an official closure of the river in the stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. The river is normally twice as deep this time of year and hasn't been this low since the severe drought of 1988.

Lack of rainfall has led to historically low water levels on the Mississippi River, and the best efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers may not be enough to keep shipping barges moving. WSJ's Caroline Porter reports.

In recent weeks, the Corps and the Coast Guard have been fighting for every inch of depth. They are releasing water from some reservoirs, dredging and blowing up rock formations in a six-mile stretch around Thebes, Ill. This past weekend, the Corps said the first phase of rock removal—which blasted away 365 cubic yards of limestone—was completed, giving shippers at least two extra feet of clearance near Thebes, a portion of the river with under 10 feet of depth in recent days.

"The success of the rock-removal work, combined with recent and forecast rain, increases our confidence we will sustain an adequate channel through this spring," said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division Commander.

Shippers greeted the news with relief. "We were hoping for the assurance that the water would be there, and if the Army Corps can maintain a 9-foot navigation channel this spring, this is very welcome news," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., an industry group for shippers and carriers.

The Waterways Council and others have been asking for the Corps to release more water from the Missouri River reservoirs to help bolster the Mississippi. But the Corps says those reservoirs have also been affected by drought and it can't release extra water from Missouri River dams to help the Mississippi without an order from Congress or the White House.

At stake is a major shipping artery that moves grain, crude oil, coal and other manufacturing products valued around $180 billion each year, according to the Waterways Council.

Even though the waterway is now more likely to remain open, shippers have still been hit by the drought. Shippers typically move at least 15 barges at a time, strapping together a flotilla that is five barges wide and three long. Now, many shippers have been forced to cut back on the width and weight of their flotillas—because of a narrowed and shallower shipping channel.

"We've basically lost two-thirds of our capacity," said Rick Calhoun, the president of Cargill Inc.'s cargo-carriers business, which operates 1,300 barges on the inland waterway system. "Because of the uncertainty and the unpredictability, some are being very, very conservative about their orders."

The total tonnage of cargo moving through the lock near St. Louis, the busiest on the river, fell to 4 million tons in December from about 5.1 million tons in December 2011, according to the Corps. About 60 million tons moves through the port annually.

The stretch of river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., is suffering more from the drought than the northern section, which uses locks and dams to moderate the river flow and usually shuts down in winter, and the southern part, which gets about half of its water from the Ohio River, which flows from the east, where the drought hasn't been as severe.

While the barge industry will suffer from lost trade potential, the cost to consumers is likely to be minimal, said Rick Mattoon, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, who mentioned trains and trucks as other options for delivering cargo.

Yet some counter that the cost of other modes of transport will be unsustainable for the commodities that depend on the river—and increased shipping costs could be passed on to consumers. "There's not economically viable alternatives to move boat commodities," said Todd Main, the acting chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "It's cost-prohibitive to use trains and trucks in the long run."

Still, while the Corps points to its success in easing the immediate problem and averting a river shutdown, some farmers worry about a lack of fertilizer making its way north for spring planting in late March.

"It's going to be pretty tough to get the fertilizer up here by the end of March," said Garry Niemeyer, a farmer in southern Illinois and the chairman of the National Corn Growers Association. "You may only have 50% to 60% of a full load with each shipment, so the price of the products will go up for us."

Many people who work on the river say they haven't seen conditions like this for years. Bob Hollingsworth, a 54-year-old captain of a harbor towboat, has been navigating the water near St. Louis for 30 years, but lately he has been scraping the river's bottom at least once or twice a day. "It's real bad," he said over the rumble of diesel engines on a recent day.

He says ultimately, the solution is more rain. "Out here—the companies, the Corps, the Coast Guard—they can set all the rules they want, but nature has the final say on everything," he said.

Write to Caroline Porter at caroline.porter@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared Jan. 14, 2013, on page A3 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Low River Gets Some Relief.