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Drought has Mississippi River barge traffic all choked up

Record low water has mountains of soybeans and corn sitting idle, which could drive up food prices.

September 01, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Drought has caused low flows in the Mississippi River, slowing vital barge traffic to a crawl.
Drought has caused low flows in the Mississippi River, slowing vital barge… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

LAKE PROVIDENCE, La. — Eight grim-faced men sit in a cramped, impromptu war room in the shadow of a levee on the Mississippi River.

With laptops opened to Web pages of the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, the group of farmers, grain brokers and barge operators is engaged in what humans have grappled with for more than 200 years in the Mississippi Delta: puzzling out the latest blow from a stubborn river that refuses every effort to control it.

Drought has reduced the Mississippi to a relative trickle, and even the dozens of inches of rainfall from Hurricane Isaac will change little on the river. The best crops of corn and soybeans in a generation are awaiting shipment by Mississippi barges — and won't wait forever before spoiling. The window is about 10 days, and once it closes, consumers across the country will feel the bite of higher prices.

PHOTOS: Drought reduces Mississippi River

All along the lower Mississippi — from Memphis, Tenn., to New Orleans — water levels are at record lows. Sandbars have appeared in midstream, and broad beaches now spread out at the edges of what were green riverbanks. Traffic has slowed to a crawl and, on some stretches of the river, has been at a standstill since June as water levels have dropped so low that even barges requiring just 9 feet of water are running aground.

With river traffic jammed up, much of the Deep South's agricultural economy is on hold and most of its ability to ferry oil, coal, fertilizer and other products is diminished.

To compound the region's misery, Isaac's drenching of the Gulf Coast threatens to spoil the rest of the soybean crop still in the Delta's fertile fields, while doing little to restore water levels. That depends on rainfall in the Midwest and upper reaches of the river.

Larry Tubbs, who operates a local grain elevator, is among those assembled in the war room at the offices of Terral River Service. He is a veteran at rolling with the river's punches. But not this time.

"We're fixin' to get panic-stricken," Tubbs said.

Discussion turns to national priorities and funding. The federal government no longer dredges the river routinely, which means silt builds up, rendering the river less navigable and more vulnerable to drought.

Johnny Martin, chief operating officer of Terral River Service, is quick to praise the Army Corps for its work, but he bemoans the agency's inability to maintain dredging outside times of crisis.

"We are a very small fish trying to stay afloat," Martin told the men, cautioning them to not expect much more federal assistance because of budget cuts. "Every system, every waterway, every lock and dam in the country is fighting for that slice of the pie," he said.

The federal government is trying to carve a waterway down the river using dredging ships operating around the clock and under duress — the vessels must first remove millions of tons of silt and sand deposited in shipping channels from last year's catastrophic flooding.

The Mississippi River is a commercial artery every bit as vital as the nation's highways and railroads. It carries 60% of the country's grain and nearly half the $200 billion of freight that moves on the country's inland waterways.

The river transports goods with an efficiency that cannot be duplicated: It would require 58 semitrailer trucks to carry the cargo held by just one barge. A barge can carry a bushel of corn from St. Louis to New Orleans for about 30 cents. The same bushel would cost 90 cents to move by train and $1.15 by truck.

But in recent weeks, barge traffic has come to a standstill while dredges costing $80,000 a day carve a 100-foot-wide channel. Other times, boats crawl along, funneled into one lane. The once teeming waterway — the third largest river drainage in the world — is mostly empty, of water and traffic.

Companies like Terral ship on the river by lashing 30 to 40 barges together and loading them to a 10- to 11-foot draft — the distance from the surface of the water to the bottom of the barge. With the shallow channel, boats are now "light loading" to 81/2 feet, losing 324 tons of cargo per foot, which means more inefficiency, higher costs and a greater backlog waiting to be moved down the river.

At best, shipments are sporadic. The usually broad river now affords enough room for only one vessel in many places. Faster-moving barges don't have space to get around slower barge tows. And, should a group of barges run aground, everyone waits until the boats are freed.

Until substantially more water flows in the river, the painfully slow dredging plan is the only answer.

An Army Corps commander predicted the crisis could extend until October. "The worst is ahead of us," Major Gen. John W. Peabody told reporters in Memphis.

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