TIMELY rains last week may have done what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to do: put water back in the nation's parched inland waterway shipping channels.
Industries relying on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers breathed a collective sigh of relief that movement of grain and other goods on the inland water grid won't stop -- yet -- despite the Corps' reluctance to free up water reserves for navigation.
Barge operators relaxed draft restrictions on some sections of the river system, particularly on the lower Mississippi south of Memphis, Tenn. The most troubling segment for shippers continues to be the stretch between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., where drafts were already as low as 8 ft., well off the typical 9-12 ft.
With additional rains over the past two weeks, water levels offered at least a temporary respite while the Corps works to remove rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill., that further threaten the movement of grain and other bulk goods. The Corps reported Dec. 11 that two contractors have been selected to remove the pinnacles, and a major planning meeting was set for Dec. 14.
The American Waterways Operators (AWO), the trade group representing the nation's barge operators, said blasting could begin as early as this week, though a Corps spokesman said that timeline was based on a "cautiously optimistic" assessment.
While welcome news for barge operators and their customers, blasting addresses only part of the problem. The Obama Administration reiterated last week that it will not take further action beyond expediting removal of the pinnacles.
"The mid-Mississippi River will be as good as closed later this month without the release of a modest amount of water from the Missouri River reservoirs," said Tom Allegretti, AWO president and chief executive officer. "The damage to U.S. agriculture is already being felt as orders are curtailed and export projections plummet with the anticipated absence of cost-effective barge transportation."
Allegretti said businesses in several industries face "potentially catastrophic losses" if navigation is not maintained, emphasizing that the situation "will only go from bad to worse" without the additional flow from the Missouri River stocks (Feedstuffs, Dec. 3).
In response to a letter from several U.S. senators calling on the Corps to reverse its stance on releasing water from the Missouri River, Army assistant secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy said it is not necessary to boost Missouri River flows into the Mississippi, noting that the weekly National Weather Service forecast showed that the river level is not falling as rapidly as expected and that pinnacle removal will happen sooner than expected.
Darcy explained the Corps' position that maintaining the flow on the Missouri is necessary for recreation in the upper stretches of the river and to maintain water supplies for drinking, irrigation and wildlife. The Corps further claims that releasing additional water from the Missouri won't affect water levels as much as the industry suggests.
Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Assn. (ICGA) and a director of Waterways Council Inc., told Feedstuffs that closing the Mississippi River -- an authority held by the U.S. Coast Guard, not the Corps -- is likely just around the corner. In the event of a closure during December and January, he estimated that as many as 10,600 barges would be shut down.
Replacing those barges as a mode of transportation would require more than 170,000 railcars or more than 742,000 tractor-trailers. ICGA said shippers are already reserving railcars, which is limiting their availability and supporting higher prices.
An analysis conducted by Navigistics Consulting and commissioned by AWO and the Waterways Council found that a closure would halt the movement of cargo valued at more than $7 billion, including more than 7 million tons of agricultural products valued at $2.3 billion.
Energy products and prices would also be affected by a shutdown of commercial shipping traffic, including 1.3 tons of petroleum products worth $1.8 billion, 5 million barrels of crude oil valued at $545 million and 3.8 million tons of coal worth $192 million.
More than 20,000 jobs could hang in the balance across all affected industries and river states, according to the report.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters last week that trade has already been affected by the draft restrictions on the Mississippi and suggested that $9 billion worth of exports have been held up due to the drought.
Speaking last week at a National Grain & Feed Assn. conference in Omaha, Neb., meteorologist Craig Solberg of Freese-Notis Weather said winter precipitation would not alleviate the conditions created by the summer drought, but surface runoff from recent rain and snow events could provide at least some temporary relief to grain shippers and barge operators.
Editor's Note: Weinzierl discussed the potential closure of commercial navigation on the Mississippi River in a recent episode of the "Feedstuffs In Focus" podcast at www.Feedstuffs.com.