Louisiana maritime businesses keep close watch on low Mississippi River levels farther north

01 15, 2013 by The Times-Picayune

With more than 2,500 Louisiana jobs at stake, the local maritime community is continuing to keep a close eye on severely low water levels further north on the Mississippi River. Louisiana barge companies say they haven't yet had to lay off workers or make other changes that significantly affect employees. But low water levels over the last several months have forced shipments coming from further north to be smaller, leading to less profit for shipping companies.

"It certainly has trickled through the industry as a negative," said Merritt Lane, president and CEO of New Orleans-based Canal Barge Co.

The biggest problem spot along the river is between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., where drought conditions have been threatening to drop water levels to below 9 feet deep – the minimum height that barges generally need to operate economically.

Forecasts predicted the river could drop to those levels by mid-January, leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start removing rock from the bottom of the river in Thebes, Ill., in an effort to deepen the river and keep maritime traffic flowing. The Corps said Sunday that its work is progressing ahead of schedule and workers have removed about 365 cubic yards of limestone from the river.

That, combined with a bit of rain in the area, has shippers breathing a sigh of relief – at least for now.

"We're feeling better about the prospects over the shorter term, but it's going to take weather patterns that bring precipitation to that area on a more prolonged basis to solve the problem," Lane said.

In the meantime, delays and restrictions will likely continue to hamper traffic and shipment of goods on the river, said Mike Strain, Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry. Among other recent restrictions, the U.S. Coast Guard had required until Thursday that barges be restricted from the shallow section of the river if they had a draft, or depth below the water's surface, of more than 9 feet. That meant barges had to be lighter.

"The same analogy would be if we restricted the interstate and we had to load all of our trucks with 10 or 20 percent less, and you only let the trucks go in one way, in one lane, during daylight hours," Strain said. "Multiply that many times, and that's what goes on on the Mississippi."

Lane said his company will likely still face delays shipping goods through the shallow area of the river, and its shipments might not be as large as they otherwise would have been. While Canal Barge Co. is not expecting any layoffs or furloughs, "we're not as profitable as we would have been without this," Lane said.

Arnie Rothstein, general manager at Ingram Barge Co., said that for most of the year his company has had to limit the amount of weight and cargo its vessels can carry because of restrictions on the river.

"It just hinders our revenue," said Rothstein, whose company is based in Nashville and has an office in Reserve, La.

If there were a prolonged closure on the river this month, about 2,520 jobs in Louisiana representing $17 million in wages would be at risk, according to the American Waterways Operators industry group based in Arlington, Va.

But for now, maritime workers just have to "wait and see what's going to happen," said Lloyd Irvin, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the International Longshoremen's Association.