The historically late spring thaw, followed by significant rains in May and June produced heavy silting in July on the Mississippi River, as water levels dropped rapidly. The result was a river closed to barge traffic for approximately three weeks during its busy season.
“Pools four and six have been closed since mid- to late July,” said Paul Machajewski, a channel maintenance coordinator with the St. Paul District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We just reopened yesterday (Thursday, Aug. 7) at noon.”
“We heard there were 17 or 19 tow boats just waiting in the area, but most shippers held off on even launching,” Machajewski continued.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been busy trying to get the channels reopened with the expectation of potentially heavy traffic due to strong harvest expectations this fall.
Radio station WSAU-Wheeler News reported Wednesday, Aug. 6 that at least 350 barges with contents worth millions of dollars were stranded north of Winona during dredging operations.
Cargo Carriers, the Cargill-owned barge business, had approximately eight to nine percent of their fleet trapped north of the closure. The loss of the use of roughly 100-plus barges cost the company millions of dollars, according to Cargo Carriers President Rick Calhoun.
“It’s difficult to estimate the overall cost to the whole industry,” Calhoun said. “We had to double buy grain to load and continue shipping south of the closure.”
Meanwhile, grain his company had previously purchased sat waiting on the north side of the dredging operations. The extra two to three weeks of being stored in barges adds to quality concerns. After all, a normal run from St. Paul to the port of New Orleans is already around 30 days.
“(The closure) did not create a crisis, but it certainly created a problem,” Calhoun said.
The number of barges is finite and the consequences of the slowdown are difficult to calculate, Calhoun noted.
“This hiccup in navigation may drive up the cost of transportation,” Calhoun explained. “People don’t realize how much stuff is moving up and down the river.”
In July of this year, Lock and Dam 6 at Trempealeau allowed through 168 kilotons (1,000 tons) northbound and 222 kilotons southbound. In 2013, the July total was 532 kilotons headed upriver and 547 kilotons sailing south. That represents a drop of roughly 63-percent in barge traffic this year from the July 2013 amount.
The barge companies are working hard to play catch-up, according to Calhoun, but the impending harvest means they will need to begin positioning barges south.
An estimated 60-percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped south on the Mississippi River through New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.
While northern grain sat waiting to sail south, goods such as road salt and concrete being brought up the river created a bottleneck of their own that may create economic ripples the northern states will feel for months to come.
If municipalities have to seek out alternate supplies of road salt, it is likely to create additional strain on state and local budgets as they face higher transportation prices and potentially less competitive pricing from nearby suppliers, Calhoun noted.
Barges are an efficient and economical means of transport. A single barge can carry the same cargo load as 15 railroad cars or 60 semitrailer trucks.
The southbound barges will be given priority in the shipping channels, according to Machajewski.
“Upriver bound vessels are easier to control and maneuver, so we prioritize moving the downbound through the locks,” Machajewski noted.
That won’t impede overall traffic, in Machajewski’s estimation. But by Calhoun’s reasoning, it may exacerbate issues as the number of upriver barges diminish in response to the harvest beginning in the south.
Nor are dredging operations complete. Pool 6 is still operating under some restrictions and additional silt removal operations are underway further south on the Mississippi River producing some traffic width restrictions.
The Army Corps of Engineers ran a 52-person crew working 12-hour shifts on four dredges during the emergency operations to clear the channel and re-open Lock and Dams 4 and 6. Guidelines for the Corps are to keep a minimum nine-foot deep by 100-foot wide channel open. Corp engineers have been aiming for 12 feet in their dredging operations in hopes of avoiding the need to dredge again next year.
Collectively, the dredges removed more than 290,000 cubic yards of dredged material from the river. This is nearly 30 percent of the average material removed during an entire year. It’s enough material to fill a line of 10-cubic-yard dump trucks from Minneapolis to La Crosse.
“The Corps had been saying we were going to have problems with certain areas before this,” said Lee Nelson, President of Upper River Services.
Dredging material requires ready access to sites where the sand being removed can be dumped. There has been a shortage of these sites, according to Nelson.
Nelson also sees a need for more dredges and a better system for expediting dredging operations.
The Army Corps of Engineers owns two dredges. In order to clear the shoaling or silting of the two pools, two additional contract dredgers were required.
“The expedited (process) takes three weeks to get through the contract bidding process,” Nelson said. “That can be too long under these sorts of conditions.”
Better funding commitments are needed for the Corps and Coast Guard, according to Nelson, who sees the two organizations as financially hampered in their efforts.
“The Coast Guard is working with vessels that are 60 to 65-years-old while they are out trying to keep up the buoy system,” Nelson said.
The closure was a heavy strain and the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, and shipping industry will need to work together cooperatively to learn from the situation and improve future response, Nelson noted.
The Corps is using two channel survey boats to continue looking for shallow areas in the coming weeks. Together with the dredges, the Corps expects to continue maintenance dredging into the fall.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a report on America’s infrastructure every four years providing a comprehensive assessment of current infrastructure conditions and needs, both assigning grades and making recommendations for improvement. The most recent report was issued last year. Inland waterways received the lowest score, a D-. The report noted that there is an average of 52 service interruptions a day throughout the inland waterway system. Projects to repair and replace aging locks and dredge channels take decades to approve and complete, exacerbating the problem further. Yet despite this situation, the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips worth of cargo are transported each year on U.S. rivers.
The Inland Waterways Trust Fund’s current tax revenues are about $85 million per year. It is currently supported by a $0.20 per gallon tax on barge fuel, and expenditures cannot exceed revenues in a given year. Yet according to the ASCE, the total capital investment needed over the next 20 years is estimated at an annual average of nearly $900 million—more than 10 times the available revenue.
The U.S. Department of Transportation projects a steady increase in river cargo traffic over the next 25 years. While the U.S. DOT does not make specific projections about inland water traffic, they do make quite specific projections for railway and roadway freight increases during that time fame. Railroads and roadways can expect at least 70-percent more freight traffic.