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Drought-lowered Mississippi River hurts barge traffic, consumer prices

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Updated: November 30, 2012 3:34PM

MEHLVILLE, Mo. — George Foster dropped out of college in 1962 to work as a deckhand on a boat, the first move in what would become a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi River.

He got his boat pilot’s license, returned to college and, for the past 36 years, has run JB Marine in Mehl­ville, about 12 miles south of St. Louis. His staff of 120 make their living off the river, cleaning and repairing barges heading to and from New Orleans.

This summer, though, his relationship with the mighty Mississippi is going through a rough patch, or, more accurately, a dry spell. His office, built to float, is partially banked on dry land strewn with disintegrating tree branches and other debris. Walking through his office’s hallway is like walking on the tilted floor of a carnival fun house. He moved his office’s humidor because it was starting to slide, and he replaced his roller chair with a standard office seat.

As the drought of 2012 baked the land, leaving Illinois and much of the rest of the country covered in thirsty farm fields, it wasn’t any kinder on the water. The Mississippi River — the silent, steady, more than 2,300-mile-long heart of America’s waterway shipping system — dipped lower and lower as the summer ticked on.

When the river is low, Foster’s business — like others that rely on barge transport, the cheapest way to move bulk commodities such as grain and coal — is slow.

And those in the industry aren’t the only ones affected by this year’s low river waters. Consumers also will feel the pinch.

“They don’t have a clue as to the amount of commodities and what it saves the nation in shipping costs,” Foster said of the average American consumer. “When shippers got to ship by rail or truck, in the end, the consumers get it.”

Even Hurricane Isaac, which dumped between five and 13 inches of rain during the 10 days it swept from the Gulf Coast up through St. Louis, didn’t help substantially raise the water levels. A month after Isaac blew in, the St. Louis river gauge reached its lowest point so far this year.

“It’s a time of need,” Foster said. “We’re all working together on this thing and kind of hoping and praying for some rain to get the river up and get back to normal operating conditions.”

1 inch down, 17-ton loss

Illinois has more than 1,000 miles of inland waterways, which at different points link to the Mississippi River. In 2010, according to Waterways Council Inc., more than 108 million tons of commodities worth almost $20.4 billion — mostly grain and coal — moved on the state’s waterways. The commodities were shipped to 20 states, with Louisiana receiving the most — more than 37.5 million tons of commodities, mostly grain. Much of that is exported through the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s very much under the radar screen for most people,” said Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “I happen to sit on the Chicago River, and I look right down, and I see barge traffic every day. I see sand barges coming through, scrap-metal barges, stone. I don’t see grain here, but Downstate — it’s huge.”

For every one-inch loss of water, a barge must decrease its load by 17 tons of cargo, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade association based in Arlington, Va.

This year, the river isn’t low by inches. It’s down by feet.

“We’ve been light loading barges,” said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port and president of the Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals trade group. “Barges aren’t as full, they don’t sink as much into water, and that’s allowing us to continue to operate.”

America’s Central Port — the overseeing body for about 15 public ports in Downstate Granite City, just north of St. Louis — handles about 3.5 million tons of products a year, mostly Midwestern grain, grain by-products, steel, asphalt and oil. Because of the shallow river, barges there are loading only about 80 percent of their normal 1,500-ton load, bound for New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Even the lighter barges are having trouble. On Sept. 15, a barge scraped against a rock-filled portion of busy Lock 27 at Granite City.

Typically, barges can rub against a bumper on the lock. But because of the low river level, the barge hit an unprotected patch, busting a hole in the side and shutting down river traffic as gravel spilled into the area, said Mike Petersen, spokesman for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

By the time the lock reopened at 1 a.m. Sept. 20, 63 vessels and 419 barges were waiting to pass through. Petersen estimated the loss at $2.8 million a day.

“Lock 27 is the busiest on the Mississippi,” he said, adding that about half of America’s farm exports pass through the lock. “That impacts the movement of grain coming downstream during harvest season. That’s particularly felt in a year like this, with a drought going on.”

The cargo waiting on the river would have filled 26,000 semi-trailer trucks, he said.

“The environmental impact of not having these trucks on the road is part of a huge draw of waterborne commerce,” he said.

Throughout the summer, south of St. Louis, where there are no locks and dams, the narrow channel also meant tugboats couldn’t push as many barges through, which further decreases the amount that can be shipped.

“It’s tough to put a number on the economic impact,” Wilmsmeyer said. “Obviously, in the long run, it will mean higher prices. Barge transportation is the cheapest, least expensive form of transportation, especially when you are moving the bulk commodity of grain.”

Fifteen barges hold the equivalent load of 225 rail cars or more than 1,000 trucks, Wilmsmeyer said.

“You can just see the cost efficiency,” he said. “When you talk about what’s happening in the farm field itself because of the drought — the yield is so low that corn prices are going up. Throw on top of that transportation costs. If this continues — and there are still quite a few people saying this could continue through the end of the year — if that happens, the worst is yet to come. And we’ve had it bad here in St. Louis.”

Wilmsmeyer and others working along the Mississippi River waterway have spent the last six months checking a phone app that tracks the river’s depth. Every tick down is money lost, he said.

“We think in terms of lost opportunity, that’s what everybody’s facing now,” Wilmsmeyer said aboard the M.V. Elizabeth Brown tugboat, traveling up the mighty Mississippi from downtown St. Louis north toward his Granite City base. “Each one you have to light-load is lost opportunity.”

‘Much lower than normal’

With the exception of the recent shutdown of Lock 27, barges aren’t having much difficulty navigating the Chicago Area Waterway System, a network of more than 100 miles of rivers and canals that link the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. A complex system of locks and dams controls and sustains the water level in the upper Mississippi, from Minneapolis to St. Louis, where the southernmost lock on the Mississippi is found.

“In the navigation channel with the locks and dams, there is no threat or concern of losing the navigation channel,” said Ron Fournier, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman. “Down south, there is always that concern that the river could shut down.”

While the river hasn’t completely closed to barge traffic this summer, it has come close. Dozens of barges were lined up on the banks of the Mississippi River, south of Memphis and north of Baton Rouge. The Coast Guard restricted how many barges one tug could pull.

“We’re normally low this time [of year] on the river,” said Kavanaugh Breazeale, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District in Mississippi. “But we are much lower than normal.”

In Chicago, Whitley said the river slowdown in the far southern United States directly affects barges leaving Illinois.

“Either you get dead traffic or significantly reduced and managed traffic,” he said. “If you’re a company, you don’t want this. You want to manage your own barges. It puts an artificial and unexpected restraint on the commerce.”

Those living on dry land could soon feel the cost of slow-moving, lightly loaded barges inching their way down the shallower river, and it won’t be just in higher food prices. It also will be in lost time.

“The impact is you have the absolute slowdown of commerce,” Whitley said. “You cannot get just-in-time deliveries when you have a system that is unreliable for getting the cargo through. If you’re in any bit of a crunch, you need to find alternative sources to carry that traffic, which probably means putting more trucks on the highways.”

One barge holds the equivalent product of about 70 semi-trailer trucks, said Lynn Muench, senior vice president at American Waterways Operators.

“If you start thinking of taking those vessels off the river and putting them in traffic, that’s really unpleasant living in Chicago,” she said. “I go up there regularly, and there’s plenty of traffic anyhow. This could increase air pollution, increase accidents without being able to move goods in a cost-effective way.”

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