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Missouri River flooding hurts barge industry

After years of drought, flooding ruins expectations for recovery of shipping
Saturday, July 23, 2011 | 4:46 p.m. CDT; updated 12:53 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 24, 2011
The towboat Mary Lynn moves a barge shipment on the Missouri River on May 22 near Napoleon, Mo. AGRIServices of Brunswick LLC uses the Mary Lynn to help ship grain and fertilizer when river levels allow. This year, high water has closed much of the Missouri River and hurt the barge industry.

BRUNSWICK — The Missouri River gave the shipping industry too much of what it needed this summer.

After a lasting drought in the river basin decimated the corridor's barge industry for the past decade, this summer's flooding has washed away hopes for a bounce-back year.

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Long-haul shipping on the Missouri River fell from 1.3 million tons in 2000 to 269,000 tons in 2009. Water levels too low for heavy barge traffic drove away most of the existing shipping on the 675-mile stretch from Sioux City, Iowa, to St. Louis.

When the drought ended at the decade's turn and 2010 estimates neared 333,000 tons, the industry grew optimistic of an upward trend. Rising river levels sparked hope for a longer, healthier shipping season. The Missouri Department of Transportation projected increases of 15 percent to 20 percent this year, Freight Development Administrator Ernie Perry said.

That's not going to happen.

The U.S. Coast Guard extended a closure of the Missouri River between Gavins Point Dam and Glasgow last week. That stretch of nearly 600 miles is the longest piece of the river ever closed.

Some stretches of the river were too high to navigate even before the closure, Army Corps of Engineers Navigation Manager John LaRandeau said.

"You can imagine the frustration of the people who make their living on the river," LaRandeau said. "River shippers eking by, just trying to get through the drought years, then business comes back and they're ready to enjoy the good years, and the river puts a stop on that."

He expects the flooding to result in one of the worst years ever for Missouri River shipping.

Bill Jackson, general manager of the grain and fertilizer supplier AGRIServices of Brunswick LLC, agrees.

"That's a foregone conclusion," said Jackson, standing on the terminal's empty docks and watching the high, swirling water. "We haven't had anything on the river since early June."

The dock usually gets weekly barge service when the river allows, Jackson said. River navigation accounts for about one-third of business for AGRIServices, a joint venture between the Brunswick River Terminal and Columbia's MFA Inc.

When the river closes, shipping via rail cars and freight trucks drives up costs. A rail shipment costs him roughly 25 percent more per ton than a barge. Truck shipments are double the cost. A barge can move one ton of cargo 576 miles per gallon of fuel versus 413 for rail car and 155 for semi-truck.

AGRIServices' towboat, the M/V Mary Lynn, also has offered one of the only barge services based on the Missouri River for the past seven years. When it does not need the Mary Lynn for carrying grain and fertilizer, AGRIServices rents the boat for various shipping jobs. The Mary Lynn is operating in St. Louis this summer, where river levels still allow for traffic.

No end in sight for river closure

The flooded river has restricted more than just the Mary Lynn.

Magnolia Marine, a barge company that brings asphalt into Kansas City, has not shipped on the Missouri River since June 11, Port Captain Lester Cruse said.

That creates problems for Paul Dolak, the operations manager at Brenntag Mid-South in Kansas City. Dolak's plant receives asphalt shipments from Magnolia Marine and sends them all over Kansas City and surrounding areas for public projects.

"It has a tremendous effect," Dolak said of the river closure. "It's been a long time since I've had a barge come up the river."

Instead of one man working to operate a barge shipment, Dolak now has eight  working overtime to manage rail cars. Between the river and a poor economy, the plant is operating at 30 percent of its normal business.

"This plant survives off the Missouri River. I don't think we could stay in business if we lost navigation on that river," he said. "Right now, I'm maintaining with the rail cars. How long I'm going to maintain, I don't know."

How long the stretch of river will stay closed is uncertain. Cruse expects Magnolia Marine barges to be back on the Missouri sometime in mid-August. Others think the rest of the summer season is lost.

"From the folks I have talked to, they are shut down till September," Perry said "It's just eliminated doggone near all the traffic on the Missouri River."

Just another setback

Not much traffic existed before the river began flooding, either.

Missouri served as the origin or destination for 83 percent of commodity tonnage shipped on the river between 1994 and 2006, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. Even in Missouri, though, there are only a handful of barge operations.

The effort to establish a barge industry on the Missouri River has a long and controversial history. Only lower basin states use the river for navigation, and debate has persisted over what role that navigation should play in river management.

Between the start of the 20th century and 1980, there were numerous efforts to narrow and deepen the channel for better navigation.

Commercial shipping, however, never lived up to expectations. The vast majority — 84 percent — of tonnage on the river is sand and gravel, 80 percent of which travels less than 10 miles. Long-haul tonnage peaked in 1977 at 3.3 million. Between 1994 and 2006, 2.8 million tons of food and farm material traveled along the Missouri River. In that same period, 189 million tons traveled on the Mississippi River.

"It's been pretty much impossible for navigation to take off," Dolak said of the past decade. "We wanted more water so that we could increase business, but because the corps has to manage it for all interests, they hadn't been releasing that much water."

That changed this year, as unprecedented rain and runoff in the upper basin prompted six major reservoirs on the river to release record amounts of water.

Perry said the flood is not a death blow to the industry, it's just another frustrating setback. Once the flooding subsides, barge services will return to the river to salvage what they can of the season.

"They'll make plans for next year, too," Perry said, "But most certainly that depends on if the weather and the river cooperate."

Jackson is confident shipping can right itself on the Missouri River. Even in the drought years, AGRIServices increased its tonnage on the river, he said. Jackson has plans to expand barge service, using a second boat to run shipments between Kansas City and Sioux City.

"Everything is here. The infrastructure is here," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of getting the correct amount of water."


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