Historically Low Mississippi River Levels Pose Challenges for Barging.
In recent weeks, the Mississippi River has reached historically low levels, the lowest in 30 years, which has caused a myriad of issues for shippers and farmers of soybeans and other agricultural products.
The Mississippi River Basin produces 92% of US agricultural exports and 78% of the global exports of feed grains and soybeans. The recent drought has dropped water levels to alarmingly low levels that are causing shipping delays and seeing the costs of alternative transport, such as rail, rise.
The river is so low, that barges have been getting stuck, leading to expensive dredging and at least one recent traffic jam of more than 2,000 vessels backed up. To avoid getting stuck, shippers have been forced to limit the amount of cargo that their barges carry in order to safely move across the low water levels. This negatively impacts shippers’ revenues. “We need the barges fully loaded and our tows pushing as many barges as possible to be as economically viable as possible,” said Austin Golding, president of Golding Barge Line.
Barges have long been considered a sustainable and cost-effective alternative for shippers. A single hopper barge can haul as much dry cargo as 16 rail cars or 70 trucks, according to the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association: a 15-barge tow keeps 1,050 trucks off the road.
To help combat the issue, the US army corps of engineers is currently working on deepening the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’ve reached it from New Orleans to the Gulf,” said Ricky Boyett, USACE New Orleans public affairs chief. “We still have to dredge Baton Rouge and New Orleans – that’s our focal area now.”
Dredging the river, however, is a long process and unlikely to have any immediate benefit to shippers or farmers leaving many no other option but to pray for rain.