Tim Cox was supposed to be steering an 800-foot string of barges through the twists and turns of the Mississippi River in southern Illinois two weeks ago, moving tons of grain and coal toward downstream ports.
Instead, Cox's towboat and about a half-dozen others spent nearly 15 hours sitting in the drought-starved river about 115 miles south of St. Louis.
The boats, each pushing thousands of tons of cargo, were forced to stop while crews dredged downstream in a desperate attempt to keep the shipping channel open as the river approaches historically low levels.
Cox, second-in-command on the towboat LJ Sullivan, sat in the captain's chair high above his stationary barges, looking out the wheelhouse windows in disbelief at sandbars and stone dikes that are usually deep underwater.
"I've never seen it this low myself," said Cox, who's worked on Mississippi River towboats for nearly 14 years. "It's a lot more stressful right now."
The drought that devastated crops throughout the Midwest this summer has made the mighty Mississippi dangerously narrow and shallow, threatening to choke off a vital transportation artery that carries billions of dollars of raw materials and commodities through the heart of the country.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for keeping the shipping channel open, says the drought's effect on the river is "equal to or worse than any (drought) of the past five decades."
Relief might not arrive anytime soon. Both the corps and a National Weather Service hydrologist say the drought will likely stretch into next year and possibly beyond as precipitation levels remain below normal.
"It's unreal," said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the corps. "I've never seen it like this."
The Mississippi's low water levels already have caused kinks in the nation's supply chain as some farmers and manufacturers choose to ship their crops by truck or train, which can't carry nearly as much cargo as barges. Barge companies have reduced the number of barges pushed by towboats and the weight carried by each barge so they don't run aground.
The exact economic impact of the low water levels is difficult to calculate because the situation is so fluid. But under normal conditions, about $7 billion worth of commodities are shipped on the river in December and January, according to The American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing the barge industry.
"There is no doubt about it - I think this is the most serious situation that this industry has faced going back to the severe drought of 1988 and 1989," said Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the organization.
The inefficiencies imposed on barge companies that transport everything from road salt to petroleum products will likely drive up prices for a variety of everyday products soon, industry officials said.
"Once transportation costs go up, there is the concern that costs could rise for everyone," McCulloch said.
Although consumers might not be hit with higher prices right away, the immediate impact of the low water levels is apparent to anyone standing on the river's banks.
Tree-covered plots that once were islands are now surrounded by acres of sand. Exposed shelves of rock and mud stretch hundreds of yards out from the usual shoreline, nearly reaching the buoys that mark the shipping channel.
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