Winter dry spell pulls the river out from under Mississippi barge traffic

It's enough to make Mark Twain turn in his river pilot's license. His beloved Mississippi River is so low along several stretches that the leadsmen on the sternwheelers of old would be hard pressed to find a spot where they could holler, "By the mark, twain!"

And this is causing big problems for commercial traffic along the nation's longest river.

The recent snowfalls in the Midwest may suggest a slow trend of relief to the drought-stricken area. But the National Weather Service says there are no clear indications that the dry spell is over.

Due to record-low water levels and river closings, barge traffic on the Mississippi dropped 50 percent last month. Barge operators lost more than $22 million in direct costs, according to the US Commerce Department.

The US Coast Guard says about 2,000 towboats and loaded barges have run aground on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio rivers combined since the first of the year. Water levels have been reported as low as six feet.

Old-timers who work on the river here say they haven't seen worse conditions in the history of the modern barge industry, which began in the early 1900s.

To compound the problem, the colder-than-normal winter has kept iced-up waterways in the upper Midwest from melting and flowing southward, which could bring some relief to the shallow rivers.

About 24,000 barges a year now travel on the Mississippi, carrying more than 50 percent of the grain, 20 percent of the crude oil, and 15 percent of the coal transported in the US.

Petroleum companies, which rely heavily on inland waterways to transport home heating oil, gasoline, and other petroleum products, say the river conditions are slowing their barges, which increases operating costs. These higher costs, they say, will eventually be passed to consumers.

Zane Meek, manager of marine services at Kentucky- based Ashland Oil Company, says, "Our barges are making less time and we've had to light-load them to get across sand bars down on the Mississippi. It all results in higher costs per unit for the petroleum products that we move."

Anthony Kucera, president of American Waterways Operators Inc., says the greatest impact of the crisis is on the price of commodities that cannot be moved because of the slowdown. He estimates the costs will be "multiples of millions" of dollars.

"If it can't move by barge, it can't move," he says, explaining the volumes are too large to go efficiently by truck or train.

However, oil companies say that current supplies are not affected because record-level supplies are already on hand at their point of use.

Likewise, grain export companies currently are not affected, says one industry source, because "2,000 to 3,000 barges, each carrying about 1,500 tons of grain for export, were backlogged in New Orleans when the crisis hit" severely about a month ago.

But barge companies say if the Mississippi doesn't rise soon, 1981 could be a "very bad year."

"A trip from St. Louis to New Orleans generally takes five days," says Bruce Sheehan, manager of dispatching at Nilo Barge Lines here. "But now a trip takes as much as eight to nine days."

Due to low water levels, the river has been closed seven times in the last five weeks for periods of up to 48 hours, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

A barge operator in the St. Louis area says the delays and reduced loads so far have pushed his operating costs 40 percent above his revenues.

In addition to the barge industry's woes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says in a new report that pollutants in the Mississippi and other nearby rivers have increased because of low water levels.

"Treated sewage and chemicals washed into streams and rivers are not being diluted due to the decrease of fresh water," says Robert Raffer, a NOAA spokesman. He says even normal spring rains at two to three inches per month between Minneapolis and Memphis "will not be enough to alleviate the problems."

Drinking water remains safe, he says. But if the lack of rain continues, "aquatic life could be adversely affected."

The National Weather Service says the outlook through mid-March for the upper Mississippi Valley, the Ohio Valley, and the Missouri Valley is continued lighter-than-normal rainfall.

Currently, four dredges operated by the Corps of Engineers and three industry dredges are digging furiously to maintain navigable depths. Already this winter , the Corps of Engineers has dredged 25 locations along the Mississippi at a cost of $4 million.

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