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Published January 07, 2013, 10:59 AM

Choking the supply chain

Barge traffic piles up as water levels fall on Mississippi.

By: Ryan Haggerty , Chicago Tribune

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — Tim Cox was supposed to be steering an 800-foot string of barges through the twists and turns of the Mississippi River in southern Illinois two weeks ago, moving tons of grain and coal toward downstream ports.

Instead, Cox’s towboat and about a half-dozen others spent nearly 15 hours sitting in the drought-starved river about 115 miles south of St. Louis.

The boats, each pushing thousands of tons of cargo, were forced to stop while crews dredged downstream in a desperate attempt to keep the shipping channel open as the river approaches historically low levels.

Cox, second-in-command on the towboat LJ Sullivan, sat in the captain’s chair high above his stationary barges, looking out the wheelhouse windows in disbelief at sandbars and stone dikes that are usually deep underwater.

“I’ve never seen it this low myself,” says Cox, who’s worked on Mississippi River towboats for nearly 14 years. “It’s a lot more stressful right now.”

The drought that devastated crops throughout the Midwest this summer has made the mighty Mississippi dangerously narrow and shallow, threatening to choke off a vital transportation artery that carries billions of dollars of raw materials and commodities through the heart of the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for keeping the shipping channel open, says the drought’s effect on the river is “equal to or worse than any (drought) of the past five decades.”

Relief might not arrive anytime soon. Both the corps and a National Weather Service hydrologist say the drought will likely stretch into next year and possibly beyond as precipitation levels remain below normal.

A serious situation

The Mississippi’s low water levels already have caused kinks in the nation’s supply chain as some farmers and manufacturers choose to ship their crops by truck or train, which can’t carry nearly as much cargo as barges.

The exact economic impact of the low water levels is difficult to calculate because the situation is so fluid. But under normal conditions, about $7 billion worth of commodities are shipped on the river in December and January, according to The American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing the barge industry.

“There is no doubt about it — I think this is the most serious situation that this industry has faced going back to the severe drought of 1988 and 1989,” says Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the organization.

The inefficiencies imposed on barge companies that transport everything from road salt to petroleum products will likely drive up prices for a variety of everyday products soon, industry officials say.

The worst stretch

Water levels are low along the entire length of the river, but the corps says the worst stretch is from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi.

The agency is scrambling to keep the shipping channel at least 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide — the minimum depth and width needed so barges can travel safely.

That requires dredging the river around the clock between St. Louis and Cairo, using barge-mounted backhoes to scoop huge chunks of rock from the river bottom and pumping sediment to the sides of the river.

The corps has begun closing the river near Thebes, Ill., every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for dredging. On Dec. 21, contractors began using explosives to blast away underwater rock pinnacles near Thebes that threaten to tear open the bottoms of barges trying to squeeze by.

The blasting near Thebes, just upriver from Cairo, is the first since the river dropped during the drought in the late 1980s, according to the corps.

Despite those measures, Hall acknowledges that a complete closing of some parts of the river is “always a possibility.”

The closings near Thebes, which are expected to last at least through the end of January, have forced towboat operators to park their barges on the side of the river for hours, like truckers waiting out a traffic jam at a roadside rest area.

Even when barges are allowed to pass through the area overnight, traffic can move in only one direction at a time.

“It’s nice to get a break, but this is not the type of break I was looking for,” Cox said as his towboat idled in the river, already hours late for its scheduled arrival in Cairo.

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