While drought has dropped Mississippi River levels, barge traffic is still moving. That movement, however, is being done with lighter loads.

“Everyone is doing the best they can in this situation,” says Steve Nail, president and chief executive officer of Farmers Grain Terminal,
Inc., in Greenville, Miss. “Last year, we all had to deal with extremely high river levels. Everyone – the Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, levee boards – did the best they could to manage that.”

The same is true now, says Nail. “The Corps is dedicated to maintaining the channel and the Coast Guard is dedicated to maintaining the proper buoys in the river to ensure they can get to those channels. They’re keeping everyone advised as to how things stand.

“There are some delays occasionally while (the Corps) has to dredge. They’ll dredge a hot-spot and then the traffic starts up again.”

The Corps is mandated to provide a minimum navigation channel that is 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide on the lower Mississippi River.

Midwest drought reaches to Mississippi River

Grain piles up as drought-lowered Mississippi River slows barges

“We are closely monitoring river levels and regularly communicating with the U.S. Coast Guard and the navigation industry,” Tom Minyard, the Memphis District’s Chief of Engineering and Construction said in late July. “We have a number of tools at our disposal to ensure the river stays open and useable.”

The 9-foot draft restriction means that, “depending on the size of the barge, we’re loading anywhere from 10 to 25 percent less than normal,” says Nail.

“If you can only load at, say, 80 percent capacity it causes us to have to load more barges to ship the same amount of grain when river levels are normal. That slows (the grain terminals) down because you have to move barges in and out of loading docks more often.

“Ideally, you want to load continuously. Anything that keeps you from doing that slows things down.”

The same light-loading of barges is occurring farther north, around Helena, Ark.

“A lot of barges are being tied to the side of the river when they get full,” says Robert Goodson, Lee/Phillips County Extension agent. “We were out on the river a few days ago and there were probably 40 or 50 tied up.

“It doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon. The earliest chance for any significant (river level) increase, I’ve been told, is in early October.”