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Barge traffic on Mississippi slowly recovering

Image: Flickr/The Back Road Photographer

Flooding has been relentless along the Mississippi River and its tributaries for many months, resulting in property and crop damage totaling several billions of dollars. Because of the massive and widespread historic flooding, many farmers had to abandon hopes of spring planting, and others who were able to plant wound up with dismal harvests. There’s been less freight to haul after hundreds, or possibly thousands of corn and soybean fields in the Midwest ended up underwater and destroyed. Some of the crops that could be pulled may have ended up on barges that eventually couldn’t make it to the Gulf of Mexico for export.

Flooded farm near Canton, Missouri on May 30, 2019. Photo: Capt. Justin Collis/U.S. National Guard

Flooded farm near Canton, Missouri on May 30, 2019. Photo: Captain Justin Collis/U.S. National Guard   Conditions on the upper Mississippi River from Burlington, Iowa to St. Louis, Missouri have improved. However, due to worse navigation conditions above Burlington, southbound traffic is limited to nine to 12 barges per tow. Tow size restrictions are in effect on the lower Mississippi River, along with daylight-only passage under bridges at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Also, the Port of New Orleans was closed for a day as Hurricane Barry hit the central Gulf Coast on July 13.

Lock repairs and high water have slowed traffic on the upper Illinois River, too. Water levels are also high on the Ohio River, while the Arkansas River is still being impacted by historic flooding from earlier this year.

However, barge movement has been making some recent headway. The Costello Lock and Dam – about 40 miles south of St. Louis in Modoc, Illinois – had been closed for several weeks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to wait to reopen it until the Mississippi River at St. Louis receded below 38 feet. Lock operator Charles Pierman told FreightWaves that the Corps reopened the Costello Lock around mid-July. Also, the latest National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts show most Mississippi River gauges below flood stage on or about August 1, 2019.

Any improvement to traffic flow throughout the inland waterways is encouraging. Grain exports are an important part of the U.S. economy. Even though output was drastically reduced because of the flooding, the more barges that reach the Gulf Coast, the better. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Grains Council (USGC), U.S. feed grain and grain products exports were worth $18.9 billion in 2015 and supported $55.5 billion in economic output. These exports were linked directly or indirectly to nearly 262,000 jobs. Furthermore, if exports were halted, the analysis indicated that more than 46,000 jobs and $2.6 billion in GDP would be lost, with ethanol production and meat production levels before accounting for losses in linked industries.

The Port of South Louisiana, combined with the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, serve as a gateway for between 55 to 70 percent of all U.S. exported corn, soybeans and wheat. Barges carry these grains down the Mississippi River to the ports for storage and export. The Port of South Louisiana is located near the city of LaPlace, and is a crucial center of U.S. economic activity, connected to America’s heartland by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It’s the largest tonnage port in the western hemisphere, and it’s the only port in the U.S. that ranks in the top 20 worldwide by the same measure.

According to the latest Grain Transportation Report, released on July 25, 2019, barge grain movements totaled 773,168 tons for the week ending July 20. This is a 14 percent increase from the previous week and 19 percent higher than the same period last year. For the week ending July 20, 490 grain barges moved down river on the Mississippi. This is 62 more barges than the previous week. Also, 415 grain barges were unloaded in New Orleans. This is 39 percent more than the previous week.

SONAR Critical Events: Flood risk areas in the lower Mississippi River valley as of July 26, 2019.

Additionally, the FreightWaves SONAR map above shows flood conditions improving at the Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA) and the Port of South Louisiana. This indicated by the all- or mostly green “donut” around each location, indicating low risk. The Port of Baton Rouge has much more dark orange around it, indicating a Medium risk of ongoing flooding.

Hopefully, the recent signs of recovery are indicative of future barge business. The only thing likely standing in the way of progress is Mother Nature. One word of warning: the heart of hurricane season is here, and the outlook may change for the worse. Only time will tell.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.