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.”

Good crop yields

Goodson says the good news is “everyone is happy with yields, which is very different compared to other regions of the country. Our corn yields are well above average – probably 30 to 35 bushels above normal. It’s a good corn crop and we’re about 95 percent done with harvest.”

As for storage, “some people are resorting to the long, white grain bags,” says Goodson. “Whatever the case, we’ll get it cut and stored somewhere.”

Nail says if the Mississippi Delta grain yields don’t mean “a bumper crop, it’s close to it. We may have low water but we also have very good crops.

“Corn harvest is probably about 90 percent done. I’ve heard, for the most part, excellent yields.

“We’re now into soybean harvest – maybe 15 to 20 percent done. So far, yields reports are mostly good.”

Lower river levels aren’t uncommon at this time of year, reminds Tommy Hart, director of the port of Greenville. “We’re in the low water season – it’s just that levels are lower than normal. That’s presenting some challenges in terms of loading barges.

“The difficulty is loading barges to the right depth to maximize transportation costs for the customer. When we have to light-load, which we’ve been doing for the last 15 to 20 days, it drives up the cost of shipping goods out of here.”

The biggest obstacle facing the Greenville port “is silting of our own channel that joins the (Mississippi) River,” says Hart. “We have less water in that area than the river has.

“The Corps is fast at work dredging so we can return to a more normal level of operation. They have dredges working port areas and in tight spots on the river to maintain navigation.”

Normally, the low-water period of the year lasts until December. “It really starts picking up around January,” says Hart. “So, if history holds and rain doesn’t fall, we’ve still got the rest of this month, September, October and November to deal with.

Not surprisingly, Nail is watching river level forecasts closely. On August 23, “the 28-day forecast – which would be around September 18 – the river level is forecast to be 6.2 (feet). That’s based on current rainfall. So, if it doesn’t rain, the forecast is for it to drop another 1.4 feet at Greenville.”

Nail was at the grain terminal in 1988 when record low water occurred and the river fell to -10.7 feet on the Memphis gage. “At that time, the Coast Guard restricted us to 8-foot drafts. Thankfully, we still haven’t reached that point.”

In recent days, a point of caution has been raised by the Corps and Coast Guard: sandbars exposed with the low river levels are not safe. In a press release they warn that while sandbars may look like an inviting beach, “they can be very unstable and may collapse into the river under the weight of a person.”

“Although the river level is low, the speed and strength of the current remains high,” Dave Berretta, the Corps’ Chief of Hydraulics and Hydrology said. “It is still a very dangerous river.”