April 18, 2014

Barge associations to Obama: order more water to save Mississippi River barge traffic

Two river barge trade groups say barge traffic on the Mississippi River could come to a halt next week if someone doesn’t put more water in the River.

Waterways Council, Inc. is one of two groups that says as early as next week there won’t be enough water in the Mississippi River for the towboats that move barges to operate. It has joined the American Waterways Operators in calling on President Barack Obama to act to avoid an effective closure.

Two unions say after next week, barges on the Mississippi River will have to remain tied up until as late as April unless the Corps of Engineers releases more water into the Missouri River or the Midwest gets lots more rain.

Two unions say after next week, barges on the Mississippi River will have to remain tied up until as late as April unless the Corps of Engineers releases more water into the Missouri River or the Midwest gets lots more rain.

Waterways Council President Mike Toohey says for every 60 days barges stay off the Mississippi, 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages are threatened and $7 billion in commodities are stranded.

“The inputs to manufacturing such a chemicals, which are a huge component of transportation on the waterways, simply don’t reach the manufacturing facilities … because there really is no other alternative to water transportation. The railroads do not have the water side deliver access that is necessary and we do not have enough trucks to take up the slack.”

Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen agrees levels are likely to get low enough to keep towboats off the River, but says the Corps can not release more water.

“The Missouri River can’t operate for the support of Mississippi River navigation just by their legal authorities, but the more important question is that if we start releasing water, we’re looking at year one of a drought. We don’t know how many years this drought is going to go on and it’s tough making decisions with water resources in a good year, but we have to keep our eyes on the long-term as far as what we’re going to do with water in any of the Corps reservoirs across the nation if we’re going to be dealing with a persistent drought.”

Toohey says the shut down could last until April unless some significant rain comes to break the drought and raise River levels.

The unions say towboats need a nine-foot draft to operate, and Toohey says very few vessels on the Mississippi can operate with anything more shallow. The unions say the River will be down to 8 feet next week.

Petersen says the Corps is already doing all it can.

“We actually just started releasing some additional water from Carlyle Lake. This would be the second kind of burst of water from Carlyle to support navigation through that reach of River at Thebes (Illinois) … that’ll reach Thebes at about the same time that the forecasts expect us to reach critically low levels.”

Petersen adds, “but ultimately … it’s going to take a whole lot of rain to get us back to normal.”