And just how low will the river go?

This barge photographed years ago on the Mississippi River is likely loaded with bulk agricultural commodities. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

The economy of Monroe County and much of the region leans heavily on agriculture. When agriculture suffers, the “trickle down” effect is unfavorable for everyone, from car dealers to retail stores and tax revenues.

That’s exactly what is brewing here this winter, as the same drought conditions which damaged crops this summer are now threatening grain transport on the Mississippi River.

The summer harvest fell far below normal due to dry weather, as did much of the fall take.  And whether you listen to weather prognosticators or follow the Farmer’s Almanac, there’s little optimism for 2013 as well. It would take heavy snow in the north and mountain west and repeated spring rains to correct the situation.

Current drought conditions and low river elevations are difficult to accept, especially since there was flooding in the same region in spring 2011.

The Mississippi River basin, fed by the Missouri, Illinois and Ohio Rivers, drains more than 40 percent of North America, including all or parts of 32 states and two Canadian provinces – some 1.2 million square miles. Like southwestern Illinois, much of that area has seen drought or near drought conditions during the last two years – since the last floods, in fact.

Brenda Seboldt of the Monroe County Farm Bureau office in Waterloo characterized farmers as “concerned, but not scared.”  She noted that if water levels continue to fall and commercial navigation is further impacted, this will be detrimental to agricultural interests here.

This could be doubly true if the area doesn’t receive at least normal rain in the spring, as well.

Ed Weilbacher heads up the Kaskaskia River Port District, and they have a different concern.

“Depths in the Mississippi impact the opening to the Kaskaskia, and while we have moved most of the smaller 2012 grain harvest to market, the second turbine at Prairie State is now up and running at full power,” he said. “They use hundreds of tons of scrubber stone for pollution control every day.  It is being delivered by barge – at least a barge full every day.”

Citing the critical need for that commodity, Weilbacher noted the tow boats that operate on the Kaskaskia are smaller than the huge long-haul vessels on the Mississippi, and can thus operate safely in shallower water.

“They draw seven feet or less, as opposed to the 8.5-foot drafts on the big boats,” he said.

Weilbacher pointed out a further impact on Mississippi River depths.

“The Mississippi River is about to start freezing from the north.  That reduces the amount of water flowing down here, even if we don’t see a river freeze here,” he concluded.

Dan Martinek of Gateway FS said his firm had moved the bulk of grain in October and November.

“We have also accelerated barge moves for January contract deliveries,” he said.  “And we can truck grain south to Cairo, or elsewhere, if necessary.  But that is expensive and puts wear and tear on roads,” he added.

Other area impacts include expenditures to ensure water supplies for area citizens. In a late November letter to Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith, Grant Evitts of Illinois American Water said the firm was spending $400,000 to enhance its ability to draw water from a lower Mississippi River to best ensure a reliable supply.

Friday, the Mississippi River Coordinating Council, chaired by Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, held its quarterly meeting at the Corps of Engineers’ Carlyle Lake Visitor’s Center.  Simon highlighted the growing basin-wide concern over low water and its commercial navigation impacts.

She first framed the discussion and then listened intently, exploring various facts and issues, taking notes and asking pointed questions.
Joe Kellett, St. Louis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy District Engineer, said the river is currently at minus two feet on the St. Louis gauge – or 51 feet below the 1993 flood level. He noted that does not mean it is running dry, but rather that adequate depths are shrinking in the navigation channel, which normally guarantees a minimum depth of nine feet.  He said the river may fall below its historic record 1940 low of minus 6.4 feet in the next 28 days.

Kellett noted the Corps, which maintains the navigation channel while the Coast Guard regulates navigation, is dredging 24-7 to support safe navigation.

He also said rock pinnacles that can threaten barge traffic on the right descending bank near Thebes, Mo., are on an accelerated schedule to be blasted in early January. He said rock was removed there in 1988, but modern multi-beam sonar has enabled the Corps to pinpoint smaller, but still deadly pinnacles in the otherwise alluvial (mostly sand) river bottom.

He also said the Corps has held water in lakes Shelbyville and Carlyle this fall. Normally that water would be released by now to make room for anticipated spring rain run-off.

“But we are holding it to be released at a yet-to-be determined time,” Kellett reported.  “It could provide a half-foot ‘bump’ from the Kaskaskia River south at a critical time,” he said.

While some are calling for water releases from Missouri River reservoirs, others question the wisdom of doing that.  Levels are low there, too, and as Kellett noted, “We don’t know just how much water the Missouri River can contribute.  And if the drought continues, we may be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The issue is further complicated by existing laws that require the Corps to operate Missouri River reservoirs for the benefit of Missouri and surrounding states, and not to support the Mississippi.

Barge companies note that low water reduces capacity by dictating lower numbers of barges that can be safely moved in each tow. Low water also requires smaller loads per barge, further cutting efficiencies. In fact, a barge that normally can carry more than 1,500 tons, loses 17 tons of capacity for each inch draft is reduced.

Unfortunately for farmers and grain dealers in Monroe County, nature may be the final arbiter of water levels and barge shipping on the Mississippi. That, in turn, can negatively affect costs and ability to meet time-sensitive export contracts at the Port of New Orleans.

Ocean vessels are continuously en route there, banking on commodities being ready to load so they can return promptly to overseas buyers.

Some 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural commodity exports pass St. Louis on barges. If the grains cannot get to New Orleans – and rail and truck capacity simply doesn’t exist to make up for more economical barge capacity – there may be far-flung effects on worldwide food supplies and future contracts, which are based in part, on confidence that American farmers will deliver the goods.

This also drives American commodity prices up, which shows up on U.S. grocery store shelves.

The main fall harvest grain shipping season is mostly over.  But coal, petroleum, chemicals, fertilizer and other bulk commodities which do not follow the same schedule remain threatened.

The Mississippi River only makes news when it floods or gets too shallow. Otherwise, it is largely an “out of sight, out of mind resource” – albeit one critical to local commercial interests.

And, to be sure, it’s making news now.

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