July 23, 2024

River levels add concern to harvest pressure

Lower river levels mean lighter loads

ANKENY, Iowa — Harvest of corn and soybeans in the U.S. Midwest is at full throttle, but whether — and how — those crops will make it to export markets has become a real concern for U.S. inland waterway authorities and shippers.

“The current and expected conditions along the Mississippi River are clearly a reason for concern,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

Continuing drought throughout the Upper Midwest has led to historically low river levels throughout the region. Those low levels include the Mississippi River, the Illinois River, the Missouri River and the Ohio River.

On Oct. 6, the U.S. Coast Guard closed the Mississippi River near Stack Island, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, due to low water levels.

Ingram Barge, a major inland waterway shipper, declared a force majeure on Oct. 13, due to what John Roberts, CEO of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Ingram Barge described as “chronic low water conditions throughout the inland river system.”

Roberts added that the conditions related to the force majeure event were limited the Mississippi River below Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“We informed customers yesterday that, given the difficult operating conditions posed by this low water, we were providing formal notice of a force majeure event — namely that circumstances out of our control were preventing normal river transport operations in certain areas,” Roberts said.

Steenhoek noted in an Oct. 7 update that barge companies are being required to load barges lighter to accommodate the low river levels. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported several instances of barges being grounded due to low water levels on the lower Mississippi River.

“A typical barge can be loaded with 1,500 short tons of freight (or 50,000 bushels of soybeans). A 15-barge tow can therefore easily accommodate 750,000 bushels of soybeans. Each reduced foot of water depth — (that is, draft) — will result in 150 to 200 fewer short tons (or 5,000 to 6,000 fewer bushels of soybeans) being loaded per barge,” said Steenhoek to illustrate the impact of the lower river levels.

Dredging operations are continuing along the river to keep the channel open.

“In addition to the Dredge Potter, we have the Dredge Jadwin from the Vicksburg District working on the lower end of the Mississippi and we are using the Dredge Goetz from the St. Paul District to address the Illinois waterway,” said Lou Dell’Orco, chief of operations for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While the levels on the Mississippi are the primary area of concern, the low levels of tributaries that feed into the Mississippi also are being monitored.

“The Missouri River cutoff, which usually impacts us in late November or early December, is the next point we are watching,” said Joan Stemler, chief of water control operations of the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Steenhoek added that while shipping on the Missouri River may be significantly lower than on the Mississippi River, the water that the Missouri River contributes is an important factor on levels on the lower Mississippi River.

“A lot of times, 40% of the volume of the Mississippi River at St. Louis is from the Missouri River. It really has an impact,” Steenhoek said.

The lower river levels also will impact shipping rates as more barges are required to ship grain to the Gulf.

“Having to load barges lighter and restricting the number of barges results in needing more roundtrips to accommodate a given amount of volume. The expected result of this is higher barge shipping rates,” Steenhoek said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor