November 27, 2012

Mississippi River may soon be too shallow to navigate

Business Week - Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought in five decades combines with a seasonal dry period to push water levels to a near-record low, prompting shippers to seek alternatives.

River vessels are cutting loads on the nation’s busiest waterway while railroads sign up new business and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draws criticism from lawmakers over its management of the river, which could be shut to cargo from companies including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. next month.

“Our shippers are looking at alternate modes of transportation,” said Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, the barge unit of American Electric Power Co., a utility owner based in Columbus, Ohio. “If you’re shipping raw materials to a steel mill in Chicago, you’re trying to figure out if you can go to Cincinnati or Louisville, Kentucky, unload it out of the barge and rail it up to the steel mill.”

Barges on the Mississippi handle about 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports entering the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans, as well as 22 percent of its petroleum and 20 percent of its coal.

Mississippi water levels may drop to an historic low next month. The waterway is falling in part because of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which last week started reducing outflows from the Missouri River as part of an annual operating plan to ensure regions further north have adequate water.

That may help make the Mississippi too shallow to navigate by Dec. 10 from St. Louis south about 180 miles to Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River, according to the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc., a trade group based in Arlington, Virginia. About $7 billion worth of commodities usually travel on the Mississippi in December and January, according to the organization.

Sam Smith, Multitudes - Then there was the river. It was dirty and smudged and mundane and most of the time like everything else in St. Louis, it just kept right on rolling along. I felt upon seeing it that one more childhood myth, like Santa Claus and fairy godmothers, had been destroyed. Yet I soon would learn that this modest, muddy stream could rise thirty feet about her current height and carry anything with her in a vengeful dash towards the sea; she could freeze, turning into a mass of ice flows that jammed themselves against each other like ice-carved rugby players, laying against the piers of bridges until the first thaw of spring released their awesome energy. In quieter times, tows - with each barge carrying the equivalent of ten freight car loads - would plow quietly along, some carrying more cargo than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's day put together.

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