Low river levels affecting delivery of commodities

08 21, 2012 by The Advocate

Low water in the Mississippi River, causing problems getting grain and other commodities downstream, has left a port in north Louisiana landlocked and forced closure of an 11-mile stretch of the river in Mississippi where 97 ships and barges are waiting for passage.

Mike Strain, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner, told the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working through a contract dredge to get the channel to Port of Lake Providence open again.

The port, in East Carroll Parish, is where grain and soybeans are shipped south, but the channel became too shallow for barge traffic to pass.

Kavanaugh Breaveale, spokesman for the Vicksburg district of the corps, said the Port of Lake Providence is the only port among seven in the Vicksburg district to be closed due to the low water conditions.

However, the other ports from Arkansas to north Louisiana are so shallow that barges have to load less material than they would during more normal water levels, he said.

Breaveale said he expects the channel to the Port of Lake Providence to be ready for traffic in 10 to 15 days depending on weather and water conditions.

Farther up river, the U.S. Coast Guard reported Monday that 97 boats and barges are waiting for passage along an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that has been closed because of low water levels.

Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Tippets said that the stretch of river near Greenville, Miss., has been closed intermittently since Aug. 11, when a vessel ran aground.

Tippets said the area is being surveyed for dredging, and the Coast Guard is replacing eight navigation markers. He said 40 northbound and 57 southbound vessels are stranded and waiting for passage.

Tippets said it is not immediately clear when that stretch of the river, which has been closed to prevent more ships from possibly grounding, will reopen.

Rachel Rodi, a public affairs representative with the U.S. Corps of Engineers New Orleans district, said river traffic south of Baton Rouge isn’t experiencing the same problems because of the deepwater channel that extends south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although Louisiana doesn’t have drought conditions, Strain said, drought conditions upriver are creating problems in the amount of grain and other agricultural products that can be loaded onto barges.

Strain said 14 barges half loaded with grain can’t get out of the Port of Lake Providence. With more harvests coming along soon, getting this port open is important to farmers and to the state’s economy, he said.

“Hopefully, in 10 days we’ll have the Port of Lake Providence open,” Strain said.

In other areas where barges have to load less than a full load to move in shallower water, consumers will end up paying for the extra shipping costs through higher food prices.

Strain compared what is happening to traffic on the river to what would happen if a highway were cut to one lane and only small cars were allowed through, one way during the day and one way during the night. It’s not hard to see how this could affect commerce and it’s the same with the Mississippi River, he said.

“The (Mississippi) river is at one of the lowest stages that anyone has seen in recent memory,” said Z. David DeLoach, owner of DeLoach Marine Services in Port Allen. Barges going upriver from Baton Rouge are not only cutting down how much they carry in each barge, but also self-limiting how many barges are included in a tow, he said. In all, it can mean a 50 percent reduction in total capacity in some of the larger tows, he said.

The issues with low water in the river started in June, but conditions got very bad about three weeks ago, he said. As a member of The American Waterways Operators, industry group for tugboat, towboat and barges, DeLoach said the industry has a conference call every day to talk about hazards and other concerns along the river.

“So we try to stay ahead of the curve,” he said.

And it may be something that needs to be adapted to in the future, Strain said.

“The growing concern is this may not be a temporary drought,” he said. There is concern that this could be a climate cycle that could mean needing to adapt to changing conditions through such things as current research into drought-resistant corn. Strain said we’re going to have to start preparing ourselves and look at how water is being used.