Severe storms and torrential rains have been relentless across the Great Plains for the past two weeks. Flooding reached major or record levels along the Arkansas River around the start of Memorial Day weekend, and it shows no signs of letting up any time soon. Farmers in the Midwest and ports on the Gulf Coast have been dealing with flooding since mid- to late March. Earlier this week, FreightWaves reported on the effects of the flooding on rail lines and the oil markets. The extreme weather is also taking a toll on barges that carry hundreds of thousands of tons of grains – mainly corn, soybeans and wheat – to ports across the country.
The persistent high water levels continue to disrupt barge traffic on most of the inland waterways. According to the latest Grain Transportation Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), multiple locks have been closed on the upper Mississippi River. As of May 30, 2019 all traffic through St Louis is stopped, as the Mississippi River gauge there indicated a level of 42.4 feet and rising. The U.S. Coast Guard has stopped all traffic at St. Louis when the river gauge exceeds 38 feet. The National Weather Service forecast doesn’t show the river levels dropping below 38 feet until possibly mid-June.
Barge traffic has been suspended on the Lower Illinois River and much of the Arkansas River, too. The Ohio River and the lower Mississippi River are open, but traffic is delayed by high water conditions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that saturated soil levels throughout the Mississippi River Valley are at 25-year highs. Additional rain, along with the saturated soils, may lead to faster runoff and rapid rises in river stages in the coming days and weeks.
For the week ending May 25, barge grain movements on the previously mentioned waterways totaled 542,150 tons. This is 47 percent more than the previous week, but 27 percent lower than the same period last year. For the week ending May 25, 324 grain barges moved down river for export from the New Orleans region. This is 114 more barges than the previous week. However, the total of 432 grain barges that were unloaded in New Orleans is 16 percent fewer than the previous week.
The Port of St. Louis is 70 miles long, including both sides. It’s the 17th-largest port in the U.S., and is served by six Class I railroads, seven Interstate highways and two international airports.
According to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), the Port of New Orleans handles around 90 million short tons and 50,000 barges. As of 2017, it’s the fourth-largest port in the U.S. and the 18th-largest in North America. The Port of New Orleans is the United States’ only deep-water port served by six major railroads. It normally receives a lot of traffic from the thousands of cargo vessels moving up and down the Mississippi River, carrying more than half of the country’s exports.
It’s still too early to tell what the full impact of the flooding will be on barge traffic, but there’s certainly a ripple effect in motion. A large percentage of the nation’s grain is moved by train to the ports previously discussed. It’s important to note that the number of carloads of grain in the U.S. originating by train has decreased by 13 percent since this time last year, evident on the SONAR chart above. As flooding persists or gets worse, this number could continue to fall.