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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn
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