Weather forces early end to navigation on river

The season, which usually ends Dec. 1, will end Oct. 14 on the Missouri River this year.
Thursday, August 11, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The effects of this summer’s drought on inland shipping will be felt into late fall with the closing of the Missouri River to navigation 48 days early.

“The closing of the Missouri is going to cause the Mississippi to be about 2 feet lower than average, which is the difference between a running river and not,” said Mike Wells, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “We’re really concerned about that and will be monitoring it carefully throughout the season.”

The season, which usually ends Dec. 1, is slated to close Oct. 14 because of low levels in reservoirs in upstream states. The length of the season is determined on July 1, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers measures reservoir levels. The Corps’ master manual dictates that if levels are low, navigation must be shut down early regardless of how much subsequent rain falls.

“It’s a major flaw in how the master manual was written,” said Lynn Muench of American Waterways Operators, which represents the barge industry. “It’s detrimental to the navigation industry.”

Wells sees the policy as unfair to the lower states.

“The upper states’ objective is to keep the reservoirs high for recreation purpose,” Wells said. “But ours is to keep the flow of the river going for navigation, drinking water and electricity purposes.”

Products shipped on the Missouri River include cement, asphalt and other construction materials. The river is a means of transportation for some industries, according to American Waterways, including a Japanese company building a power plant in Iowa that shipped $350 million worth of parts and $49 million worth of equipment to the nuclear power plant in Callaway County this year. At the time of the Oct. 14 closing, the product with the highest traffic will be grain, since it will be around the harvesting season.

“That is right in the middle of the grain harvest,” Wells said. “It’s going to be difficult for them to ship it out with the river closed.”

Because Missouri River flows affect the Mississippi below St. Louis, when navigation stops on the Missouri, the flow to the Mississippi will be decreased. Muench added that a possible shutdown of the waterways in St. Louis would “cripple the system.”

“We’re concerned we’re going to have major problems on the Mississippi,” Wells said. “We’re talking about billions of dollars of commerce because St. Louis is the third largest inland port. If you shut that down, you’re going to have trouble getting things south to the Port of New Orleans and north.”

According to Muench, the navigation industry on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers contributes about $2.3 billion annually to the national economy, and Wells said the closing could lead to a loss of at least $500,000 a day. Muench added that it could be as much as a $1 million to $2 million daily loss.

“If you just look at the tow boats, not even the barges, just to have them sit there in the port costs $5,000 to $10,000 a day,” Muench said.

Both Wells and Muench see no feasible solutions to keeping the Missouri River open longer.

“We could try emergency dredging, but that costs a lot of money,” Wells said. “Plus with dredging, they have to shut the river down for a day anyway.”

Muench hopes that national legislation will help keep the rivers open.

“I just hope that when the congressmen and senators from the areas around the rivers go back, they recognize the impact that this is going to have on the whole river system,” Muench said. “I’m hopeful that they’ll write some kind of legislation that allows the rivers to stay open.”

Traffic on the Missouri River has decreased in recent years, and Wells sees this year’s problems continuing that trend in the short term. “People have already started to move off the river in recent years because of how it’s being managed and the droughts,” Wells said. “But we’re hoping to get some rain and get back some of those people that we’ve lost.”

Civil engineer John LaRandeau, the Corps of Engineers navigation coordinator for the Missouri River, said barge traffic on the lower Missouri River has steadily decreased in recent years because of drought, low reliability and the unavailability of towing services.

“Who knows, next year it could rain and the river could stay open,” LaRandeau said. “We have a new towing company coming in next year, so we’ll see if we can add some tonnage.”

The long-haul tonnage that traveled on the river in 2004, not including sand and gravel, is estimated at 500,000 tons; the previous year’s total was 669,000 tons.

“I see the river traffic stabilizing and then improving, as long as the water improves,” LaRandeau said.

Because of the drought, the river is experiencing a reduction in flow of 15,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second. A reduction of just 6,000 cubic feet per second is equal to one foot of depth in the Mississippi River. The barges will have to lose depth with the river. One inch of depth is equivalent to 17 tons of product, or about as much as a semitrailer can carry.

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