Midwest grain harvests loom. Will a low Mississippi River stall farmers’ deliveries again?

Midwest grain harvests loom. Will a low Mississippi River stall farmers’ deliveries again?

ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER – In the wheelhouse high atop the rumbling, 240-foot boat, James Garner perched in a chair surrounded by levers, dials and screens. Below him, the Dredge Potter inched up a remote stretch of khaki-colored water between Missouri and Illinois.

Garner was controlling a bus-sized metal vacuum shaped like a kitchen dustpan submerged just in front of the boat. Its water jets agitated the river bottom before pumping the sediment through a floating pipe that snaked downriver – and to shore.

“That’s the color of money,” Garner, 47, remarked as he checked to make sure the brown shade of water and mud spewing on the bank was the right mix to avoid a jam.

Near him sat a pilot, who, along with two tugs on either side, kept the boat dredging the right coordinates as winches pulled in anchors set far upstream. The dredging crew knows any interruption can have outsize economic consequences.

For 92 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Depression-era dredge has helped maintain a 9-foot-deep Mississippi channel for tow barges that haul more than 500 million tons of cargo a year on America’s most important maritime highway. 

That work has taken on heightened urgency this year, as drought and heat reduce river levels and rekindle worries about a second year of costly shipping delays.

Last fall, drought led to about 40 days of critically low water in parts of the Mississippi that hadn’t seen it in years – grounding barges, stalling traffic, blocking river ports at the height of harvest season and causing an estimated $20 billion in losses, according to AccuWeather. 

As this year’s harvest approaches, the river is again on the decline. 

It’s still not known whether the river will drop as low as last year. But Mississippi water levels have been falling since June. The Ohio River – where it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, and serves as its largest tributary – dropped almost 10  feet in the last two weeks of August. Levels are predicted to fall farther in the coming weeks.

With 61% of the Midwest classified as abnormally dry or in drought as of late August, most of the Mississippi is expected to face low water in September that will most likely affect industry and navigation, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. 

That is, unless enough rain falls in the right places and amounts.

“Right now, there’s no rainfall in sight that will turn things around,” said David Welch, a National Weather Service hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

That’s worrying farmers who ship grains such as soybeans on the river to New Orleans and, from there, around the globe – relying on lower costs that help keep it competitive for the global export market. They fear another year of backups and spiking costs that eat into profits.

Already barges have had to reduce their loads to float higher in the water. Meantime, 17 dredges work to maintain the navigation channel. In Louisiana, the Corps is building an underwater sill for the second year in a row to keep seawater from pushing upstream and damaging drinking water systems. 

Uncertainty about weather and water has always flowed through the livelihoods of those along the Mississippi, who are no strangers to cycles of drought and flood and the wide mix of factors that impact river conditions.

Short-term climate cycles such as El Niño are part of the reason for drier conditions this year. But more heat and extreme weather may translate into wider and more frequent swings on a river that helps carry a nation’s economy.

“Yes, we have that normal water cycle. But we’re seeing an acceleration of how fast water moves through the cycle due to warmer temperatures in general,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Up and down the river basin, those who depend on it were watching the forecasts: A towboat captain who has plied the river for decades. An Army Corps officer looking out over the water in Memphis, Tennessee. And farmers just beyond the levees, their grain ripening in the field as both harvest and rising freight costs loomed. 

On the Dredge Potter, the challenges could be seen in often-submerged dikes that now protrude from the river nearby – as well as the vast fields of ripening soybeans and corn that sat green in the late-summer sun.

“It’s a really critical period. We need to have our supply chain operating and firing on all cylinders,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Council. “The crystal ball is not very encouraging. And what that portends is that we could be in a situation similar to where we were last year.”

How a dwindling river impacts commerce and shipping 

Eric Badeaux, whose Louisiana roots are evident in his accent, followed his father into the towboat profession when he was still a teenager. 

Now 59, Badeaux has logged decades pushing barges on a river basin that drains 41% of the country. In some years, he transited the 800-mile stretch between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New Orleans up to a dozen times.

He learned to read the water’s ripples and shades to discern shallows on an ever-changing river bottom, one whose lower portion flows free of locks and dams but where river engineering, including levees and dredging, has increased flood risk.

The barges, each nearly 200 feet long, are lashed together – often both end-to-end and side-to-side – to form huge floating shipments. Badeaux has pushed them through both high and low waters, including sharp drops in 1988 and 2012. 

But last year, he said, was different.

“Last year was the worst it’s ever been,” Badeaux told USA TODAY late last month while loading rock for concrete onto barges on the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

In a normal year, a 10,000-horsepower towboat on portions of the lower Mississippi might push as many as 42 barges at once. During the critically low water last year, that same boat could only push about half that number, with each barge loaded with less weight to limit its draft, said Jennifer Carpenter, president and CEO of the industry group American Waterways Operators.

“We saw lower water levels on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, in some places, than had been seen since 1988,” she said. Others saw the lowest ever recorded.

In some spots, towboats could not reach granary ports. Near Memphis, multiple barges were temporarily grounded on shoals, blocking the river and forcing emergency dredging. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a river cruise ship couldn’t get to a ramp that normally loads passengers. Smaller loads meant more boats and river congestion. 

Nearly 60% of all U.S. grain exports are transported by barge. 

“You could just look out at the river and know that something really, really strange was happening,” said Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Mayor Stacy Kinder. 

All that meant backups for Badeaux, whose trip carrying grain from Baton Rouge to Cairo, took nearly a month, more than twice as long as normal.

“We would stay and stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere and just wait a week at a time,” he said.  “The river was pinned down tight.”

The low water eventually eased. And by late August of this year, he was leading a smaller cargo load down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to reach the Gulf, a shorter loop that let him remain closer to his ailing mother.

But Badeaux was still thinking about the time he spent last year looking through his wheelhouse windows, pondering how it all fit into historic cycles that have faded into the past, as well as heat that seemed to be increasing everywhere. 

It brought to mind lyrics of a Hank Williams Jr. song, he said, one that he said everyone was singing: “The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River, she’s a-goin’ dry.”

Farmers near the Mississippi face yet another uncertainty

In a metal-sided barn near Cairo, Adam Thomas, 36, had been readying his hulking John Deere combine and thresher. 

Just outside were acres of knee-high soybean plants, their emerald green leaves yellowing – signaling it would soon be time to harvest.

Across the road and over an earthen levee, almost within eyesight, was the Mississippi – where he’d take his crop to granaries to be loaded onto fleets of towboats. 

Thomas, a father of three who scrapped plans to become a history teacher to join his own father in farming, now grows 2,500 acres. One of his plots is here – atop a former neighborhood, along with a nearby Sears factory that once made prefabricated homes. They were torn down as Cairo fell on hard times and never recovered.

But being close to the river – especially at Cairo, perched at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, whose famous river water gauge is a bellwether for the system – remains valuable and the go-to shipping option for farmers within hundreds of miles.

Barges, less expensive than trains, can each carry 70 semi-trucks worth of grain. Industry officials said it’s a key reason U.S. soybeans are globally competitive.

Last year, stymied barge traffic meant nearby granaries filled up, leaving some farmers scrambling for more expensive or distant storage options. By October, barge prices for moving grain downriver from St. Louis shot up 383%, according to the USDA. 

“It’s a pretty big price punch against some of your crops,” Thomas said.

Many areas of the Midwest faced periods of drought this year and low waters have already impacted shipping prices. Thomas also saw instances of short, hard rain that caused their own problems. In mid-July, he said, 6 inches of rain in 18 hours wiped out 300 acres of soybeans.

He’s still not sure it will drive any lasting changes in his operation or harvest or selling strategies.

“You sit here and go OK, is it climate change? What’s going on?” he said. “And then the next two years are fine.”

On the other side of the river in Kentucky, a similar calculation is being made. 

Allen Pace, 60, a fourth-generation soybean farmer, sat in a wood-paneled office near his barns, farm equipment and a series of grain bins, large circular metal storage containers, on his roughly 2,600 acres of soybeans and corn. 

Last year, the river levels left him earning “$1.80 less a bushel for what I could have gotten had the river been up,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like much. But times that by 1,000 acres, now we’re talking big money.”

Already his corn yield will be lower this year because of the dry weather, he said. His soybean crop will be average, he said. 

He’s considering investing in another $120,000 grain bin to ensure he has enough storage on his farm. That way, he would be more insulated from spikes in shipping prices, able to hold more grain to sell when such costs decline. On the other hand, he said, the need might not arise again for many years. 

The only certainty when it comes to weather patterns, he said, is change.

“There’s not one year here that’s the same,” he said. “It’s always been that way. It’s what we’ve always had to deal with,” he said. 

As he walked across a gravel drive to a series of grain bins, Pace said he’s keeping a close eye on not just river dredging, and granary capacity but shipping costs.

According to the US Department of Agriculture update on Aug. 31, barge freight rates for grain from St. Louis had risen nearly 50% from the previous week and were 85% above the three-year average. “If these conditions persist, the tight barge supply could be especially problematic as the corn and soybean harvests progress,” the agency said.

“I was checking with my guy on the corn,” Pace said of a worker at a nearby granary on the river, who told him barge drafts were being cut along with load capacity. That, in turn, will drive up demand and prices for shipping, and reduce what granaries pay for crops.

The American Commercial Barge Lines, for example, a major shipping company, by Sept. 5 had reduced barge loads between Cairo and the Gulf of Mexico – and warned to expect delays because of reduced navigable space.

“Is there a reason to panic yet? No,” Pace said.  “Could there be a reason to panic? Yes.” 

Will climate change drive wider swings in a critical river?

Brian Sawser, commander of the Memphis District of the Army Corps of Engineers, can see the river clearly from his office in Memphis.

As he looked out at the river on a late August day, water levels were forecast to fall in the coming weeks unless a tropical storm or other well-placed rainfall arrived. The river might not reach levels seen last year, he said, but the worries remained. 

“The next few weeks look challenging,” he said. 

Still, a year after officials had to close the river repeatedly amid a spate of 26 groundings, emergency dredging and impassable harbors. Four times, the river closed for more than 24 hours. His district has been working since summer to deepen harbors and trouble spots. 

Sawser and others say that’s just one reason to hope this year won’t be as bad.  For one thing, spring flooding was tamer than usual, which means less river sediment pushed into new shoals.

Carpenter, the head of American Waterways Operators, said lessons learned last year – including improvements in the Coast Guard’s deployment of navigation buoys to help towboat captains see new shoals or channel patterns – have also bolstered preparations.

But more needs to be done, such as extending equipment at ports to reach barges during low water or fostering wetlands to hold water during dry periods, said Colin Wellenkamp, head of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of mayors of towns and cities along the river.

The cities group has called for reducing bureaucratic hurdles to speed financial and other help to cities and states where drought effects get less attention than floods.

“We have a 40-day drought and we run up a bill of $20 billion. No other area of the country can come anywhere near that kind of price tag for drought,” he said. “So if we don’t want that price tag to start becoming an annual thing that’s just getting more and more expensive, we’ve got to come to some solutions.”

In Germany, after low water levels have similarly stymied Rhine river cargo vessels, the shipping industry has moved to design new barges to better operate in low water, The Washington Post reported. 

In the U.S., Svoboda, of the National Drought Mitigation Center, said whatever happens in the near term, a warming climate is generally expected to tighten and amplify existing cycles of flood and drought.

The National Climate Assessment projected more heavy rain events and elongated dry spells with intensifying droughts in many areas of the United States.

For now, Justin Giles, chief of Water Management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, says he is hoping for a “nice average year” without either.

“It does seem like it’s difficult to find that happy medium here lately,” he said.

Meantime, the harvest from farmers – and steeper pressure on river transport – are fast approaching. And while this year’s levels may or may not drop as low as last year, fall is typically the river’s low-flow season.  

Back on the Dredge Potter, the crew was working 24 hours a day, removing 50,000 cubic yards a day to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel.

On the nearby shore, about 90 miles south of St. Louis in a rural stretch of river, cars belonging to some of the boat’s 50 crew – deckhands, mechanics, cooks and tender operators – were lined up on a levee. 

They work in three shifts. 

To reach the boat – only upgraded to diesel from steam power in 2001 – they hike down a grassy hill and through a line of trees to the muddy shore, where a launch zips them to the dredge.

Among them is Andy Kotlarz, 42, who traveled from Asia to Africa in the merchant marine before joining the dredge six years ago and becoming assistant captain. On a recent day, he stood on the bridge deck in cap, sunglasses and life vest.

Below, crews pulled up the metal dredge to check for jammed logs and rock as giant generators hummed.  Once back underwater, the dredge sucked up water and mud before spraying it onto the shore.

In some cases, those pipes are placed so that the dredged sediment will offer new habitats for animals, said Lance Engle, dredging project manager with the St. Louis District.

The dredge crew knows it could be another long season before the vessel goes back in for repairs. Last year, they dredged nearly 9 million cubic yards, double their average, equivalent to about 2,700 Olympic-size swimming pools.

On the bridge, Garner says he loves working on the peaceful river and watching sunsets and sunrises – and the big economic stakes of the crew’s work.

Outside, the crops stretching to the horizon would soon be heading down the muddy river to the Gulf of Mexico. 

For now, the boat just had to do what it’s done for 92 years: Keep digging. 

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