Drought Threatens to Halt Critical Barge Traffic on Mississippi
6 January 2013
By Darryl Fears
On a stretch of the Mississippi River, the U.S. Coast Guard has
been reduced to playing traffic cop.
For eight hours a day, shipping is allowed to move one way in the
180 miles of river between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., depending on
the hour. For the other 16 hours, boats go nowhere, because the
river is closed to traffic.
The mighty Mississippi, parched by the historic summer drought, is
on the verge of reaching a new low. That could mean that tugboats
hauling barges loaded with billions of dollars’ worth of cargo —
enough to fill half a million 18-wheelers — would not be able to
make their way up and down the river.
Through the night, contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers remove rocks from a stretch near Thebes, Ill., that
threaten to cut boats to shreds. The corps has assured state
officials, farmers and coal barons who rely on the shipping that
it can maintain the nine-foot level it says makes navigation safe.
But those who rely on the river say they are worried nevertheless.
As of Friday, National Weather Service hydrologists forecast that
the river near Thebes could drop below a point that would allow
barges to safely navigate with heavy cargo, forcing the Coast
Guard to restrict weight and effectively shutting down commerce
late this week, according to reports by the Associated Press.
But the Army Corps and Coast Guard assured state officials that
the Mississippi will remain open. Recent rains and water releases
from the corps’ Carlyle Lake in Illinois improved water levels for
the Middle Mississippi River, the corps said.
“There’s nothing pretty about this,” Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty
said Friday. “We are facing a historic drought. River levels are
at record lows we haven’t seen since 1941. Over six weeks the Army
Corps has dredged record amounts of the river.”
But, Fogarty said, reports that the Mississippi will close are as
reliable as doomsday projections “based on the Mayan calendar.”
Tamara Nelson, senior director of commodities for the Illinois
Farm Bureau, has faith in the corps, but is worried by the long
“Not being able to move anything on that river will be critical, a
big hit,” she said. “It affects tax revenues for the federal
government, it affects jobs.
“I don’t think you can really exaggerate the level it has fallen
to,” Nelson said. “I’ve been here 15 years in Illinois, worked in
agriculture almost 30 . . . and to see what is typically a
bank-to-bank Mississippi full of water . . . now become almost
hillsides of sand is like watching a lake empty.”
Iowa, Missouri and Louisiana are also heavily dependent on the
Mississippi. In 2010, the Port of Metropolitan St. Louis shipped
and received more than 30 million tons of cargo worth about $7.5
billion, making it the nation’s third-busiest inland port,
according to the Waterways Council Inc.
During a typical January,
$2.8 billion worth of goods flows between St. Louis and Cairo:
5 million to 7 million tons of grain for cattle feed, coal for
power plants and cement for construction, according to Illinois
In that state alone, the commerce supports 6,500 to 8,000 jobs
with $50 million to
$54 million in wages, said Adam Pollet, acting director of the
state Department of Commerce.
Even if shipping continues on the shallow water, tugboat operators
will order barges to lighten their loads as a safety precaution.
Lightening loads is like money falling through a hole in a pocket.
“We can’t say everything is being threatened, but there’s some
amount of risk to those jobs,” Pollet said.
More than a quarter of all commodities that Illinois sells go down
the river and 5 percent of its imports go up, said Ann Schneider,
secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation.
On the one hand, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin
(D-Ill.) pressed the corps to do everything in its power to keep
the water level above eight feet, prompting a plan to remove rocks
late this month to be moved up.
On the other hand, Quinn has ordered his administration to line up
more rail cars and trucks in case the worst happens. A tugboat
hauling 15 barges carries as much freight as more than 200 rail
cars or 1,000 trucks.
The stage was set for record-low water levels in the summer,
during the great drought. More than three-fifths of the contiguous
United States — the District and portions of Virginia and Maryland
included — were struck by moderate drought or worse, the most
extensive dry spell since 1956 and comparable to the Dust Bowl era
of the 1930s.
The National Weather Service in Louisiana forecast then that the
lack of rain would persist and predicted low flows on the
David Gay, an Illinois family farmer with 1,500 acres in the
Mississippi Valley, 90 miles north of St. Louis, lost half his
corn crop in the drought. He was happy that the Army Corps kept
the river open so that his grain could move to the purchaser, a
But now Gay is worried that the river will be too low for boats to
bring the fertilizer he needs to prepare his land in March for
planting. “I think there was more fertilizer applied in fall than
usual because some people are worried about that. I know we did,”
The shallow Mississippi “is a concern that could turn into a
crisis down the road,” said Gay, whose farm is on its banks.
“If you don’t live near the river system and see how important it
is as far as commerce, it’s easy to forget about it, and what it
means to the middle part of the country,” he said.