The tow boat Major General John Peabody uses to survey his domain as regional head of the Corps of Engineers couldn’t stop last week in Greenville, Mississippi.
The water in the harbor was so low that the 241-foot Mississippi V had to dock in Arkansas, at the end of a gravel road where grain trucks kicked up clouds of dust that covered cars with silt.
A year after the river flooded, drought shut some ports, driven vessels aground in low water, interrupted shipping and forced barges to lighten their loads to get through. The drought, which has shriveled crops and parched the earth from Canada to Texas, may rival one in 1988 that cost shippers $1 billion and reduced the nation’s largest river to the lowest point in modern history, said the National Waterways Foundation.
“We have got to keep it open,” said Peabody, 54, the Army corps’ Mississippi Valley Division commander and president of the Mississippi River Commission. “This is the way into the heartland of the U.S.”
The Mississippi’s waters have become so shallow that shippers have had to cut the number of barges their tow boats push and the amount of freight each carries. Last week, more than 100 vessels were halted near Greenville because of groundings. Transport prices are rising.
More than 566 million tons of freight valued at $180 billion moved through inland waterways in 2010, including 60 percent of U.S. grain exports, 22 percent of domestic petroleum and 20 percent of the coal used to generate electricity, according to the Waterways Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.
Forty-seven percent of that, or 487 million tons, flowed down the 4,267 miles of navigable channels on the Mississippi and its tributaries in 2008, the Corps of Engineers said.
“Prices for everything go up if this shuts down,” Peabody said aboard the Mississippi V on a tour of the river with the commission to meet the public. “The cost of everything goes up when you don’t have navigation.”
Congress has charged the corps with keeping the ships moving and that means maintaining a channel at least 300 feet wide and 9 feet deep in the Mississippi, said Peabody. The agency has eight dredges working around the clock on the river below St. Louis.
“It is the shallowest river most people have looked to navigate in a long, long time,” said Austin Golding, co-owner of Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
In some places, the river is 59 feet lower than it was at the height of last year’s flooding, said Dennis Norris, chief of operations for the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division.
In normal years, the river often resembles a highway, with barges and tow boats replacing 18-wheelers. Barges gather together in rows in front of flat-bowed tugs that push them through the water.
Thirty to 40 barges would normally be loaded to a 12-foot draft, the distance from the bottom of the barge to the bottom of the river, Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the waterway foundation, said. Barges can now be loaded only to a 9-foot draft and the totals have been cut to 20 to 30, she said.
“Each inch of draft reduction equals thousands of tons of product being left on the bank to make that happen,” Golding said. “With lighter drafts comes less product being moved. It is a precautionary measure because a lot of times these boats are traveling with less than 2 feet from the bottom of the barge and the bottom of the river.”
One barge holds the same amount of diesel as about 140 to 150 trucks, said Walton Gresham, 63, who oversees Delta Terminal in Greenville and also owns a petroleum dealership in Indianola, Mississippi, supplying 70 retailers and farms and businesses.
“I am in the fuel business and we receive all of our product by barge,” Gresham said. “We have had two full barges sitting south of Greenville for five days. We have a day and a half of inventory for gasoline. Without fuel everything is going to stop.”
Trucking in fuel will increase the cost per gallon by two to three cents, he said.
“As soon as we start taking three and four and five and six thousand barrels off each barge, you’re putting tens to hundreds of new trucks on the highways and those trucks aren’t sitting idle somewhere waiting for the work,” Golding said.
Diverting river traffic to railroads would increase the tonnage trains carry by 25 percent, according to the waterways foundation.
Prices are already rising.
“The biggest impact is a 25 percent increase in shipping costs,” said Tommy Hart, Greenville’s port director, who has worked the river since 1972.
Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said he estimates $350 million worth of grain has to be moved in the next six weeks. Farmers have begun storing corn in cotton warehouses, and beans need to get into grain elevators where they can be protected from moisture, he said.
It would take 7,000 trucks to move grain that normally is transported by river barges, which can carry 1,500 to 1,600 tons each, he said.
“Those trucks and trailers don’t exist,” Strain said. “All of our rail hubs are running at capacity. The way the infrastructure is set up there is very little alternative.”
If the crops aren’t moved and can’t be stored adequately, there will be “significant crop loss,” he said.
“Ultimately the consumer will pay quite a lot of money if we can’t move them to where we need to move them,” Strain said.
More than 250 tributaries feed into the Mississippi system, which drains 31 states and two Canadian provinces, or 1.25 million square miles, according to the Corps of Engineers. Warm temperatures last winter left almost no snow on the ground across the Midwest to melt and feed the rivers.
Since then, drought has spread across most of the 48 contiguous states. As of Aug. 21, 63.2 percent of the region had moderate or worse drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Rainfall in Des Moines, Iowa, since June 1 has totaled 5.05 inches, 7.36 inches below normal, the National Weather Service said. In Louisville, Kentucky, 6.06 inches have fallen, 4.47 fewer than normal.
The forecasts aren’t hopeful. Temperatures in the areas feeding the river are expected to remain higher than normal and rainfall lower than normal for the next three months, said Katelyn Costanza, senior hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, Louisiana.
“So it looks grim,” she said.
The $200 million spent on dredging is coming from $1.7 billion the Corps received to make repairs to levees, dams and spillways after last year’s flood, Peabody said.
The dredges are helped out by existing projects that use the river’s own power to keep channels open by forcing the flow between dikes as it rounds bends, Norris said.
“The river can move more silt than we can,” he said.
The flood brought frenetic activity to the river. People loaded up their possession in moving vans, levees were strengthened and states even used convicts to fill and stack sandbags. The drought is different.
Sweeping, fan-shaped sandbars reach into the channel for hundreds of yards at bends in the river. They resemble pristine beaches. “They’re real nice if you want to spend the rest of the afternoon dying in quicksand,” Peabody said as the Mississippi V rolled by.
Up and down the river, tow boats pushed their barges diagonally against the banks to await their turn to travel the channel. Parts of the river resembled a town square full of parked cars.
In a drought, all most people can do is wait and hope for rain, Peabody said.
“What keeps me up at night?” Hart asked. “Praying for rain.”