Companies operating along the Mississippi River are seeing a drastic cut in business as severe drought lowers water levels and makes shipping increasingly difficult.
The drought, which now covers more than 1,000 counties across the US, has dropped water levels 50 feet below last year’s levels in some places. Last winter’s lack of snow, the absence of any major tropical storms from the Gulf of Mexico, sweltering temperatures, and the lack of rain this spring and summer are to blame for the shallow water.
The Mississippi is a major trade conduit through the central U.S. Barges, which are often cheaper to operate than trains or trucks, carry goods such as grain, corn, soybeans, steel, rubber, coffee, fertilizer, coal, and petroleum products in and out of the interior of the country.
As the water levels fall, barges have run aground near Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the water is already less than 5 feet deep, and shipping companies have been forced to curtail their business. The Wall Street Journal reports:
‘It’s causing headaches all up and down the river system right now,’ said Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, a St. Louis-based barge company.
Mark Fletcher, owner of Ceres Barge Line of East St. Louis, Ill., said about 70% of his 220 barges aren’t being used now. First, the drought cut crops, reducing demand for shipping. Now, low water levels are making it more costly to ship.
‘It’s not good if you are in the barge business right now,’ he said. ‘In the last 60 days, you’ve watched a whole lot of money go out the window.’
Some river ports have been forced to close temporarily or shut down parts of their operations because of the low water levels. At the port of Rosedale in the Mississippi Delta, port director Robert Maxwell Jr. said water levels are about 50 feet below what they were last year, when flooding shut down the port. If the water falls any lower, there was a ‘high likelihood’ he would have to close, he said. One of the port’s public loading docks is inoperable, with equipment normally in the water now hanging the air. The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to come this week to dredge, where heavy equipment is used to dig out sediment from waterways to make them passable for shipping.
‘This is absolutely not normal,’ Mr. Maxwell said.
In response to the dramatically low water levels, companies have decreased the number of barges in operation. Without some steady rain soon, “the vast majority of commerce would have to stop,” says P.B. Shah, president of Ingram Barge Co., the largest barge company operating on the Mississippi river.
– by Max Frankel