The unusually low water level of the lower Mississippi River causing barges to become stuck in mud and sand, disrupting river travel for shippers, recreational boaters and even cruise line passengers.
A lack of rainfall in recent weeks has caused the Mississippi River to approach record low levels in some areas from Missouri south through Louisiana. The US Coast Guard said at least eight “groundings” of barges have been reported in the past week, despite low-water restrictions on barge loads.
One of the groundings happened on Friday between Louisiana and Mississippi, near Lake Providence, Louisiana. It halted river traffic in both directions for days “to clear the grounded barges from the channel and to deepen the channel via dredging to prevent future groundings,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Sabrina Dalton said in an email.
As a result, dozens of tugs and barges were lined up in both directions, waiting to pass. The shutdown also grounded a Viking cruise ship with about 350 passengers on board, said R. Thomas Berner, professor emeritus of journalism and American studies at Penn State and one of the passengers.
The Viking ship was originally scheduled to launch from New Orleans on Saturday, but the water there was so shallow that the launch was moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Berner said.
On Tuesday, the ship was grounded near Vicksburg, Mississippi, due to backup caused by the grounding. It was not near a wharf, so the passengers could not leave the place. The ship’s crew kept people entertained as much as possible with music, games and other activities.
“Some of us take naps,” Berner joked.
The stuck barges were freed on Tuesday afternoon. Berner said the cruise ship restarted Tuesday night, but the restart didn’t last long: Viking told passengers in a letter Wednesday that the rest of the planned two-week trip was canceled, citing low-water issues that caused additional closures. Viking arranged to get passengers home and the letter said they would get a full refund.
Almost the entire Mississippi River basin, from Minnesota to Louisiana, has experienced below-normal precipitation since late August. The pool from St. Louis south has been largely dry for three months, according to the National Weather Service.
The timing is bad because barges are busy transporting newly harvested corn and soybeans up and down the river.
Lucy Fletcher of agricultural retailer AGRIServices in Brunswick, who sits on the board of the St. Louis-based trade association Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals, said navigation problems on the Mississippi, Missouri and other major rivers have caused some shippers to look to other modes of transportation.
“Can they divert to rail?” Fletcher asked. “Well, there’s not an abundance of rail availability. And usually people book their transportation for the fall early in the season. So if they haven’t already booked that freight, you’re going to see people in serious trouble.”
Fletcher said that with the supply chain still in a bind after the COVID-19 pandemic, trucks are also largely booked and unavailable.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said 29% of the nation’s soybean crop is transported by barge. He estimated that barge capacity has dropped by about a third this fall because of tow restrictions caused by the low tide. The reduced capacity at a time when demand remains high is contributing to a 41% jump in barge freight rates over the past year.
Matt Ziegler, director of public policy and regulatory affairs for the National Corn Growers Association, said about 20% of the corn crop is exported, and nearly two-thirds of those exports typically travel down the Mississippi River on barges before being shipped out of New York. Orleans.
“It’s certainly the worst possible time for these bad conditions,” Ziegler said.
To keep river traffic flowing, the Corps of Engineers has dredged the Mississippi in several places and set limits on the number of barges each tow can move.
The outlook for much of the Mississippi River Basin calls for continued dry weather in the near future. Fletcher hopes winter will bring some relief.
“We need a good year for lots of snowmelt,” she said. “The whole system just needs some water.”
AP reporters Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska, and Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.