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Market Matters Blog           10/03 11:20

   Mississippi River Barge Movements Restricted Due to Critical Low Water Levels

   The Mississippi River is in dire need of rain throughout the system as 
terminals struggle to load out harvest bushels.

Mary Kennedy
DTN Basis Analyst

   The Lower Mississippi River is turning into a sandbox. Water levels at St. 
Louis and south have been dropping throughout the summer and, in September, 
levels became critical, slowing or in some cases stalling the 2022 harvest from 
getting to the Gulf for export. On top of many safety restrictions hampering 
shippers, barge freight costs soared to record highs and are continuing to rise 
for the month of October.

   The low water is an issue throughout the entire system due to lack of rain 
in the entire Midwest and Ohio River Valley. Precipitation in these areas is 
very important for maintaining sufficient water levels on key rivers, Thomas 
Russell, Russell Marine Group, told DTN on Oct. 1. "In recent weeks, low water 
levels, particularly on the Lower Mississippi, have resulted in barge terminals 
having difficulty loading barges with some barge terminals unable to operate 
due to low water at docks."

   To make matters worse, Russell said some loaded barges were required to off 
load some cargo because draft restrictions changed by the time the barges were 
ready to move. Barge draft reductions and tow size reductions have been 
implemented for weeks and there have been numerous tow groundings resulting in 
traffic slowdowns and stoppages.

   DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said, "In short, we are not seeing 
anything significant that could bring help to water levels on the three main 
rivers -- Missouri, Mississippi, or Ohio. We're seeing some smaller systems and 
even strong cold fronts, but they haven't been bringing much rainfall. Models 
are pointing to another strong cold front next week which may have a chance at 
some more widespread moderate rain, but I have a hard time believing it will 
bring enough to affect river levels on those three rivers."

   Baranick added that we would need to see a slower-moving system with 
widespread moderate to heavy rain to have a large impact on the river system, 
but "everything we're seeing so far is pretty quick and doesn't put down a lot 
of precipitation."

   In a Sept. 30 press release, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis 
District, said it has been monitoring low water levels along the Mississippi 
River this week.

   "In addition to the Dredge Potter, we have the Dredge Jadwin from the 
Vicksburg District working the lower end of the Mississippi and we are using 
the Dredge Goetz from the St. Paul District to address the Illinois Waterway," 
he continued. "The St. Louis District has also utilized the Louisville 
District's contract Dredge Bill Holman."  

   Along with actively dredging the river to keep the channel open, their water 
management office is closely monitoring the current conditions and forecasting 
future conditions.

   "We are currently at -0.7 feet on the St. Louis gage and are preparing the 
channel for -7.0 feet, although as we experienced in 2012, the fate and 
transport of sediment gets dicey when below -5.0," said Chief of Water Control 
Operations Joan Stemler. "The Missouri River cutoff, which usually impacts us 
in late November or early December, is the next point we are watching," she 

   The St. Louis District maintains close contact with its counterparts at the 
U.S. Coast Guard and the river industry and will be closely monitoring this 
evolving situation.

   "As if agricultural shippers did not have enough supply chain challenges to 
occupy multiple lifetimes, there is current and growing concern related to the 
diminished water levels along the inland waterway system that will impact barge 
transportation. Currently, the area of particular concern is the Mississippi 
River south of St. Louis," said Executive Director Soy Transportation Coalition 
Mike Steenhoek. "This will become more acute as we increasingly enter harvest 
season. Due to the scarcity of precipitation throughout the year, the water 
depth along our navigable waterways is limiting the efficiency of barge 
transportation in two ways -- channel depth and channel width." Steenhoek 
explained both:


   "Barge companies are having to load barges lighter in order to prevent 
groundings, which have already occurred and are a growing concern. A typical 
barge can be loaded with 1,500 short tons of freight (50,000 bushels of 
soybeans). A 15-barge tow can therefore easily accommodate 750,000 bushels of 
soybeans. Each reduced foot of water depth (i.e. "draft") will result in 
150-200 fewer short tons (5,000-6,700 fewer bushels of soybeans) being loaded 
per barge. 

   "Let's assume a soybean-growing region will need to transport 100 million 
bushels of soybeans via barge. Under normal conditions, 100 million bushels 
divided by 750,000 bushels per 15 barge tow equals 133 barge tows required. If 
the water level for loading is decreased by one foot and if you utilize the 
conservative 150 fewer short tons (5,000 fewer bushels) per load, the 15-barge 
tow will be loaded with 75,000 fewer bushels. This is the equivalent of 
removing the entire production of three soybean farms from a single barge tow 
(500 acres of soybeans per farm times 50 bushels an acre equals 25,000 
bushels). Under this scenario, 148 barge tows will be required (100 million 
divided by 675,000 bushels per 15 barge tow)."


   "Barge companies are announcing a maximum of 25 barges south of St. Louis. 
Since there are no locks and dams located on the Mississippi River south of St. 
Louis, barge tow sizes are larger since they do not need to transit lock 
chambers and the size limitations they impose. During drought conditions, the 
shipping channel becomes narrower, which necessitates reduced tow sizes. Barge 
tows south of St. Louis can often include 30-40 barges. A reduced maximum to 25 
barges is therefore significant." 

   Russell noted that water levels in New Orleans are hovering around three to 
four feet and will continue to hold that range during October, and ship and 
barge movements are currently operating as usual. "However, the slow flow of 
the river current is allowing a wedge of saltwater from the Gulf to work its 
way upstream into the river. To prevent the salt water from entering fresh 
drinking water intakes, the Corp of Engineers will construct a mud berm on the 
river bottom. This happened in both 1988 and 2012 at mile 64 below New Orleans. 
Plans for the berm are being finalized. During construction, expect vessel 
traffic to be restricted to one way. After construction is complete, vessel 
deep drafts will likely have to be reduced to a number to be the determined 
draft," said Russell.

   "The situation is fluid and approaching unprecedented territory," said 
Russell. "Expect additional barge draft, tow size restrictions, and ongoing 
grounding delays. Allow for extra barge transit times. Barge ETA's will be hit 
or miss until barges are within two days of New Orleans and past the most 
problematic low water areas."

   Mississippi River St. Louis, Missouri, hydrograph:

   Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, hydrograph:

   Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, hydrograph:

   Mississippi River hydrograph at Vicksburg, Mississippi:

   Mississippi River hydrograph at New Orleans, Louisiana:

   Mary Kennedy can be reached at

   Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn

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