The Mississippi River hit a seven-month high at Memphis Friday,
but towboats continued to push smaller, lighter flotillas of barges
past the city because of dire straits upstream.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it was hopeful about keeping the river open between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., where blasting is under way to deepen shallow, rocky passages.
But barge companies that ply the waters between Memphis and the upper Mississippi said the low water is cutting into their profits just the same.
Barge line lobbyists in Washington have been pushing for water releases from Missouri River reservoirs to feed a shallow stretch of the Mississippi that divides Missouri and Illinois.
However, operators said what they really need is for Mother Nature to provide the kind of rainfalls that have raised the river level more than 20 feet at Memphis since September.
From the Memphis riverfront, the river looks pretty much back to normal for this time of year, when the Mississippi is slowly recovering from dry late summer and autumn conditions and building toward a springtime crest.
We've had so much water the last four weeks, the river is at 11 feet and rising, said Randy Richardson, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Port Commission. It seems like we're going back into a normal pattern.
The river was at 11.5 feet at 6 a.m. Friday, highest level on the Memphis gauge since last May 21, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Heavy rains across the region and the Ohio River valley have steadily replenished the river at Memphis since it bottomed out last Sept. 19 at minus 9.86 feet, the second-lowest level on record.
Lack of rain upstream last summer severely restricted access to Port of Memphis facilities, especially on Presidents Island, but Richardson said, They're cranked back up now. As far as I know, we don't have anybody down because of water levels.
A close look at passing traffic, however, reveals that there are fewer barges hitched to each towboat and that the barges are riding higher in the water. Barge lines have had to make those adjustments to be sure the tows can navigate the section above Cairo.
Memphis-based Southern Towing Co. operates 22 towboats that push barges filled with liquid fertilizer from factories in Louisiana to terminals in the upper Mississippi Valley as far north as St. Paul, Minn., and on the Illinois River south of Chicago, vice president Kevin Conway said.
This time of year, everybody is trying to get their fertilizer to the terminals so it will be ready for farmers when they need it in the spring, Conway said.
Loads have been reduced 30 percent, to 1,400 tons a barge from 2,000 tons, to make sure the barges don't get hung up in the shallow water. The towboats' 50,000-gallon fuel tanks
can't be filled to capacity, either, because the fuel weight would make them ride too low in the water.
The result is, You've got this backlog of products waiting to get through, Conway said.
As winter sets in, ice will creep into the northerly reaches of the inland waterway network, further restricting the free flow of water feeding the bottlenecked area and reducing navigability by tows and barges. We're watching these flows, and the flows are getting less and less because of the ice, Conway said.
St. Louis-based SCF Liquids, which moves refined petroleum and other products by barge, has reduced loads on its barges and is watching hopefully the Corps of Engineers work and the debate over Missouri River reservoirs.
The way things are going right now, we're fairly optimistic. We might get by and not see any service interruption such as a complete closure of the channel. The river hasn't fallen as bad as we thought, said Bob Zeik of SCF.
We have to get the job done with smaller numbers of vessels and smaller numbers of barges, Zeik said. We're sort of quietly optimistic. We've never been in this position before. We're just hoping we can get through the end of this month and then see some precipitation.
Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, transportation, industrials and energy services at Informa Economics Inc. in Memphis, said river shipping companies are being hurt both by actual conditions and by fears of the situation deteriorating.
I know of carriers that are having to load less. One, because the water restrictions are such that they can't load more, and two, out of fear that changes are occurring rapidly. It takes several days for tows to travel from Louisiana to the hardest-hit stretch of river, during which the water level can change substantially.
People have been diverting or changing their routing, Eriksen added. People are saying, 'For me to load half a barge, it's just not economical.'
Among commodities that are vulnerable to a shipping slowdown are crude oil, traveling from North Dakota oil fields to Gulf Coast refineries, coal from the Powder River Basin in the Rocky Mountains, and sand and gravel for the construction industry.
Blasting of rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill., was expected to deepen the channel by a couple feet and stop barge lines from having to lighten loads further, said Conway at Southern Towing.
The work was helping to appease shipping advocates who had been appealing to the federal government to release more water from the Missouri River reservoirs.
But he cautioned, Just because we take the rocks out doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet.
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