Miss. River Barges Are Getting Stuck at 'Worst Possible Time'

River is nearing record lows in some areas, snarling corn, soybean shipping
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 6, 2022 4:44 AM CDT
Barges Are Getting Stuck in the Mississippi River
Barges idle while waiting for passage in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Miss., on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.   (Thomas Berner via AP)

The unusually low water level in the lower Mississippi River is causing barges to get stuck in mud and sand, disrupting river travel for shippers, recreational boaters, and even passengers on a cruise line. Lack of rainfall in recent weeks has left the Mississippi River approaching record low levels in some areas from Missouri south through Louisiana. The US Coast Guard says at least eight "groundings" of barges have been reported in the past week, despite low-water restrictions on barge loads, the AP reports. One of the groundings happened Friday near Lake Providence, Louisiana. It halted river traffic in both directions for days "to clear the grounded barges from the channel and to deepen the channel via dredging to prevent future groundings," said US Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Sabrina Dalton.

As a result, dozens of tows and barges were lined up in both directions, waiting to get by. The stoppage also brought a halt to a Viking cruise ship with about 350 passengers on board, said R. Thomas Berner, a Penn State professor emeritus of journalism and American studies, and one of the passengers. The Viking ship was originally supposed to launch from New Orleans on Saturday, but the water there was so low that the launch was moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Berner said. By Tuesday, the ship was halted near Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The stuck barges were freed midday Tuesday. Berner said the cruise ship restarted Tuesday night, but the restart didn't last long: Viking told passengers in a letter Wednesday that the rest of the scheduled two-week trip was being called off, citing low water problems causing additional closures. Nearly all of the Mississippi River basin, from Minnesota through Louisiana, has seen below-normal rainfall since late August. The basin from St. Louis south has been largely dry for three months, according to the National Weather Service. The timing is bad because barges are busy carrying recently harvested corn and soybeans up and down the river. "It’s certainly the worst time possible for these bad conditions," says Matt Ziegler, manager of public policy and regulatory affairs for the National Corn Growers Association.

Lucy Fletcher of the agricultural retailer AGRIServices of Brunswick, who serves on the board for the St. Louis-based trade association Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals, says navigation woes on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other major rivers have some shippers looking at other means of transportation, but few trucks are available and "there’s not an abundance of rail availability." To keep river traffic flowing, the Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Mississippi at several spots and placed limits on the number of barges each tow can move. The forecast for much of the Mississippi River basin calls for continued dry weather in the near future. Fletcher is hopeful the winter will bring some relief. "We need a good year for lots of snow melt," she says. "The whole system’s just going to need some water."

(Read more Mississippi River stories.)

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