Drought lowers Mississippi, holding up barge traffic

The confluence of the St. Croix (TOP) and Mississippi Rivers (BOTTOM) is seen from the air on May 31, 2012.

This year's drought is plaguing more than farmers. The Mississippi River is at its lowest water level in decades, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in emergency mode to keep barge traffic moving.

A stretch of the river from St. Louis, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois is so low right now, jagged bedrock is close to the surface. That could scrape or even puncture the huge barges that silently float the river. Each one normally carries 70 semi trucks worth of very heavy stuff, and they ship in groups 40 or so barges at a time.

Lynn Muench, Senior Vice President of Regional Affairs with American Waterways Operators, a trade group, says barges mostly ship heavy things that would be too expensive to send by rail or truck alone. That includes petroleum products, chemicals, sand, gravel, and salt for the roads this time of year.

One timely load some of these stalled barges are carrying? Fertilizer for spring planting.

She says the fleets of barges have lightened their loads, so they don't sink so deep in the water. For the next several week, barring heavy rain, the boat captains will have to have to line up all day, waiting, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breaks up the rock. They can only pass in the night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"The price to move everything has almost doubled," says Muench.

She says the Army Corps should've seen this coming and busted up the rocks sooner. Mike Petersen, a corps spokesman in St. Louis, recognizes that the slowdown is annoying, but notes it is the best option, long-term.

"This is something that'll give us a permanent improvement in that stretch," he says.

He expects to finish the work in a few weeks. The drought, he says, could go on for years.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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