KANSAS CITY — Used to be, says towboat pilot Bob Cox, he'd see another vessel pushing barges on the Missouri River nearly every day.
"Now," he says on his cell phone aboard the towboat Tarkio, "you may not see a boat for a whole week."
Yet he thinks that with the end of the drought that parched the Missouri River valley for most of the last decade, the action will pick up.
The trend lines all suggest otherwise — perhaps foretelling the end to the cheapest way to move large commodities through the region. It also might close the river chapter in Kansas City's history, the very thing that led settlers to this crossroads.
Since the 1970s, barge traffic on the Missouri has fallen steadily. It sank more with every succeeding drought, never bobbing up to the previous level. Down a lot, up a little, down even more.
Now, even the rising tide of a saturated river basin doesn't look like enough to lift boat traffic on the river. Long dry spells have made it harder for barge operators to bank on the waterway. And during the droughts, more and more customers made a habit of turning to trucks and trains.
Consider Mid-West Terminal Warehouse Co. The firm operated the largest barge loading facility in Kansas City for 60 years. But in 2007 the company noted that for four years not a single barge had been sent to its pier just south of the Kansas River. It shut down its barge-loading facility, relying only on road and rail.
"When push came to shove, we weren't seeing any shipping volume," said Mid-West's president, Joe LaMothe. "It was not reliable enough. Just about every shipper felt the same way."
Long-haul commercial tonnage on the river — commodities such as fertilizer and asphalt pushed upstream, grain harvests floated downstream — peaked in 1977 at 3.3 million tons. In 2009, the first year of recovery after eight years of drought, only 245,000 tons of cargo traveled the Missouri. That's just 7 percent of the high point. The 175 tons moved on the Missouri in 2008 were the fewest since 1949.
The value of that cargo sank just as surely. The high point came at $941 million in 1977, and the value tumbled below $100 million in the last two years.
"Have we reached bottom? I don't know," said John LaRandeau of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Will the towboats come back? I don't know. It's there if someone wants to use it. It's still cheaper to run there than other forms of shipping."
The last decade saw at least two of the larger towboat operators go out of business, their equipment salvaged by other firms to run on other waterways.
In the basin that drains into the murky waterway, scant rainfall and skimpy mountain snowpack from 2000 through 2008 meant shorter navigation seasons — cut by as much as 48 days in a single year.
The Corps of Engineers, caretaker to the river's dams and reservoirs, announced earlier this year that the shipping season that started in April would run through November. It was the first full season since the drought.
The industry says a longer season and higher water levels in the channel could resuscitate the business. Again, though, history doesn't suggest so.
Missouri River shipping "never achieved its expectations. Even under the very best of circumstances, it was never a huge industry," said Richard Opper, former executive director of the Missouri River Basin Association. Now he works for the governor of Montana, a state that wants more water stored in reservoirs and less released for towboats to the southeast.
In his old job, Opper sought compromise between upstream and downstream folks. In the mountain states and Dakotas, people wanted more water kept in reservoirs to feed sports fishing and tourism, to irrigate farmland and to increase the output of hydroelectric generators on dams. Downstream, the Missouri is critical to municipal water systems and to cool power plants.
The modern Missouri is a New Deal legacy and the work of the Flood Control Act of 1944, signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. Before the river renovation, the annual flood damage in the basin was more than $1 billion in 2010 dollars.
Tonnage transported on the Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis increased from about 51,000 in 1951 to about 3,261,000 in 1979, yielding navigation benefits estimated to average $17.7 million a year.
Yet in practice, the payoffs have largely come from sources other than shipping. Part of the plan had looked to new navigation to spring up along the lower reservoirs, so that barges would be needed to cart the resulting grain surplus to the Gulf of Mexico.
Instead, an analysis in 2004 found that the value of the river to municipal water supplies was almost 66 times its value for barge traffic. Hydropower was 71 times as important to the national economy. Even recreation and tourism in sparsely populated Montana and the Dakotas — and the chief competitors for Missouri River water in drought years — were found to be nearly nine times as important.
The Corps' so-called master manual was adopted that year after decades of debate and lawsuits. This new rule book for Missouri River management gave lower priority to barge traffic. And there might be less consideration yet given to the industry. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota last year initiated a $25 million, five-year study to look at how the Corps of Engineers sometimes drains upstream lakes to buoy downstream shipping lanes.
Barge operators won't go down easily. Lester Cruse's Magnolia Marine Transport runs shipments of liquid asphalt from St. Louis to Kansas City. Barges offer the only practical way, he said, to move a commodity like that.
"Any time there is cheap, alternative transportation, people are going to use it," he said. "Right now, barge is the cheapest way to go."