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By MARK EVANS and
MICHAEL BOYD JR.
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
Concerns continue to rise as the Mississippi River – and other major rivers – go down.
With the Mississippi near historic lows this month, fears are rife that barge traffic may be seriously impacted.
The low river heights have already shut down the Ste. Genevieve Modoc Ferry.
The river dropped below 0 feet on the Chester, Ill. Gauge on Sept. 7. It is projected to keep getting lower into early October.
According to Ronnie Inman, longtime manager of the ferry and former manager at Tower Rock Stone, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates 12 actual feet of water in the channel, at 0 feet on the gauge.
“It’s bad. It’s going to be long-term, is what we’re afraid of,” Inman said. “The ferry might be down all winter. It’s too low for us to run.”
The concern is not just local.
“We’re starting off this year low and pretty dry,” David Welch, a hydrologist with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told Transport Topics. “We’re not seeing a lot of relief in sight.” According to that website, about 64% of the Midwest is in drought. This is the worst drought situation in more than 10 years.
Low river levels can slow or halt shipping on the waterways and raise transportation costs, which are passed on to retailers. This increases prices – and sometimes leads to shortages – on various goods, including food.
Janet Cox, manager of Rozier’s Country Mart, said that none of the store’s supplies come by barge. Therefore she doesn’t expect the store to be directly impacted.
Plenty of people are likely to feel the impact if the situation continues, though. To keep barges moving at all, they frequently can only carry partial loads, to keep them from snagging on the river bottom.
Low river levels can also force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge channels to allow ship traffic. This has been the case around Ste. Genevieve recently.
The Corps has worked to maintain a 9-foot-deep Mississippi channel for tow barges for 92 years. Barges haul more than 500 million tons of cargo a year on America’s biggest river.
According to AccuWeather Inc., the low levels contributed to about $20 billion in economic losses in 2022.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly grain transportation report indicates that, as of the week of Sept. 2, barge grain shipping was down 87% from this time last year and down 94% from the three-year average, at Granite City, Ill.
Broken down, there had been 67% as much corn shipped as in 2022, 74% as much wheat and 84% as many soybeans.
“It’s a really critical period. We need to have our supply chain operating and firing on all cylinders,” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Council, told USA Today. “The crystal ball is not very encouraging. And what that portends is that we could be in a situation similar to where we were last year.”
People who have been around the river for years are concerned.
“It’s not a record at St. Louis, but it’s not too far from it,” Inman said. “There’s not but eight and a half or nine foot of water there, in front of the arch.”
Lou Dell’Orco, chief, Operations Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, feels things are under control.
“There are currently no navigation restrictions in the St. Louis District Area of Responsibility,” Dell’Orco told the Herald. “The Corps is currently maintaining the 9-foot channel and 300-foot width in the main stem of the Mississippi River, minimizing channel delays as possible. Our significant efforts last year, coupled with no significant spring rise, have enabled us to maintain authorized channel dimensions thus far.”
Amanda Hollinger of Viking Cruises, meanwhile, told the Herald that none of the firm’s Mississippi River cruises had beencancelled.
The immediate future doesn’t show any relief.
“It doesn’t show that we’re going to get any rain,” Inman said. “It’s just going to sit here.”
Rain would be the simplest answer.
“The region needs rain,” Dell’Orco said. “Absent that, we will continue to dredge as long as conditions permit.”
Still, Inman and numerous others are concerned.
“It’s unusual because we’ve been kind of dealing with it off and on since June,” he said. “It doesn’t look very good.”