The lower Mississippi River has so little water that barges are getting trapped in mud and sand, interrupting navigation for shippers, recreational boaters, and even cruise passengers.
Due to a lack of rainfall in recent weeks, the Mississippi River is approaching record low levels in certain locations from Missouri to Louisiana. Despite low-water limitations on barge loads, the US Coast Guard reported at least eight “groundings” of barges in the last week.
One of the groundings occurred at Lake Providence, Louisiana, on Friday between Louisiana and Mississippi. It suspended river traffic in both directions for several days “to clear the stranded barges from the channel and to deepen the channel via dredging to prevent future groundings,” said Sabrina Dalton, a spokesperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
As a result, scores of tows and barges were waiting to pass in both directions. According to R. Thomas Berner, a Penn State professor emeritus of journalism and American studies and one of the passengers, the delay also brought a Viking cruise ship with around 350 passengers on board to a halt.
On Tuesday, October 4, 2022, barges sit idle in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi, awaiting passage. Due to the exceptionally low water level in the lower Mississippi River, barges are becoming trapped in the muddy river bottom, causing delays. Cruise ship stranded in mud, according to Thomas Berner of AP
The Viking ship was scheduled to launch from New Orleans on Saturday, but due to low water levels, the launch was rescheduled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to Berner.
Due to the backup caused by the grounding, the ship was halted near Vicksburg, Mississippi, by Tuesday. Because it was not near a dock, travelers were unable to depart. The ship’s personnel kept the passengers as engaged as possible with music, games, and other diversions.
“Some of us are sleeping,” Berner joked.
The stranded barges were liberated about lunchtime on Tuesday. Berner said the cruise ship restarted Tuesday night, but it didn’t last long: Viking informed passengers in a letter Wednesday that it was canceling the remainder of the scheduled two-week voyage due to low water levels, which caused additional restrictions. Viking made transportation arrangements for passengers, and the letter stated that they would receive a full refund.
Rainfall is below average.
Since late August, nearly the entire Mississippi River basin, from Minnesota to Louisiana, has received less than usual rainfall. According to the National Weather Service, the basin from St. Louis south has been mostly dry for three months.
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The timing is unfortunate because barges are already transporting freshly harvested maize and soybeans up and down the river.
According to Lucy Fletcher of the agricultural retailer AGRIServices in Brunswick, who serves on the board of the St. Louis-based trade association Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals, navigation issues on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other major rivers have some shippers considering alternative modes of transportation.
“Can they switch to rail?” Fletcher inquired. “Well, there isn’t a lot of rail availability. People frequently plan their fall transportation early in the season. So, if they haven’t already booked that freight, expect to see folks in trouble.”
Additional strain on the supply chain
Trucks are also heavily booked and unavailable, according to Fletcher, because the supply chain is still snarled as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, barges transport 29% of the nation’s soybean production. He calculated that barge capacity is down by one-third this fall due to tow constraints induced by low water. Because of the limited capacity at a time when demand remains high, barge transportation charges have risen 41% in the last year.
According to Matt Ziegler, the National Corn Growers Association’s manager of public policy and regulatory relations, around 20% of the corn crop is exported, and nearly two-thirds of those exports typically go down the Mississippi River on barges before being shipped out of New Orleans.
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“This is unquestionably the worst time for these poor weather,” Ziegler added.
To keep river traffic flowing, the Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Mississippi at various locations and limiting the number of barges that can be moved by each tow.
Much of the Mississippi River basin is expected to remain dry in the near future, according to the prediction. Fletcher is optimistic that the winter will provide some relief.
“We need a nice year with a lot of snow melt,” she explained. “All the system will require is some water.”