Another supply chain crisis: Barge traffic halted on Mississippi River with lowest water levels in a decade

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CNN Business

The lowest water levels in the Mississippi River in a decade, caused by a severe drought in the Midwest, have closed the vital channel to trampling traffic at a crucial time of year for transporting crops from the nation’s heartland.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging parts of the river for the past week in an effort to deepen the channels and get barge traffic moving again. But the closures have caused a massive tie-up in the country’s already struggling supply chains.

The low tide has also been responsible for eight barges running aground over the past week, according to a report from the US Coast Guard.

As of Friday, the Coast Guard reports that 144 vessels and 2,253 barges are in line and waiting to get through two stretches of the river where traffic has been halted — one near Memphis, the other just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. While the Coast Guard’s statement said it hopes to resume traffic as soon as late Friday, it could not say for sure when that would happen.

Barges idle as they await passage in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Miss., Tuesday.

“The Coast Guard, [Army Corps of Engineers] and river industry partners are working toward the goal of opening the waterway to limited one-way traffic when it has been determined safe to do so,” the Coast Guard statement said.

Even when barges start moving again, they will be forced to carry as much as 20% less cargo than normal to avoid running too deep into the water. And instead of a single vessel moving between 30 and 40 barges at a time, as they normally do, they have been forced to move no more than 25 barges on each trip due to the narrower channels.

The combination of fewer barges per trip, and less load per barge, has reduced the capacity of barges moving on the river by about 50%, even before the recent river closures, said Mike Seyfert, executive director of the National Grain and Feed Association. And that has sent the rates that shippers pay skyrocketing.

“From what we’re hearing from members, it’s resulted in record barge rates, and that’s driven by the fact that there’s limited traffic,” Seyfert said.

River barges are still an important method of moving cargo in the United States, especially for agricultural products.

About 5% of all freight in the United States moves on river barges, measured by the weight of the cargo and the distance traveled, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Shippers using river barges have few, if any, affordable alternatives.

Most of the barge traffic moving south this time of year carries agricultural products. Many of those moving north are loaded with fertilizer that farmers need for their next planting.

“At this time of year, the river is critical to moving product,” Seyfert said.

The region that supplies water to the Mississippi River has been particularly hard hit by one regional drought since July, leading to significantly lower levels around Arkansas and Tennessee, according to data tracked by the US Geological Survey. The two highest levels of drought have recently expanded across the Midwest and South, according to last week’s US Drought Monitor.

This is just another stumbling block for US supply chains still struggling to recover from disruptions since the start of the pandemic two and a half years ago. Ports on the west coast, where most of the country’s imports arrive by container ship, are also still congested.

And while a freight strike was narrowly averted last month, even the freight railways themselves admit they are providing substandard service levels as they struggle with their own labor shortages.

The Mississippi is not the only river facing low water levels and posing economic problems for those who depend on those rivers.

Prolonged drought in the western United States has taken reservoirs in the Colorado River basin to historically low levels. This water supply is essential for both hydropower and the supply of water needed by the western states.

And in Germany, river levels on the Rhine fell in August, limiting barge traffic there, including coal shipments needed to power power plants.

There is little sign of relief for the low water levels on the Mississippi.

Another dry week across much of the central and southern United States has led to “intensification of drought conditions across much of the Great Plains, Mississippi Valley and Midwest,” according to the latest update from the US Drought Monitor.

“A very dry pattern over the past month” has led to significant deterioration of crops and river levels, the summary noted.

Up to 57% of Arkansas experiencing severe drought, highest in five years; three months ago it was less than 1%. To the north, the amount of Missouri assessed as being in severe drought conditions has doubled each of the past two weeks, and is now up to 30% of the state.

Use the slider to compare photos taken of the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee on March 1, 2022 (left) and then again on October 2, 2022 (right). The images are natural color images – processed to resemble the actual color of the Earth – taken by the Sentinel-2 satellite.

From European Union/Copernicus/Sentinel Hub/EO Browser

These widespread drought conditions are also affecting other important tributaries of the Mississippi River. More than 70% of the Missouri River Basin is facing drought conditions this week, meaning less water is entering the Mississippi River, further lowering its levels.

A weather station at the University of Missouri in Columbia, for example, reported just 6.46 inches of rain between June 2 and Sept. 27, the drought monitor noted. That’s more than 11 inches below normal and the driest period for that location in 23 years.

No significant rain is expected over the next week in the Lower Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, and water levels are expected to drop further.

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