Exactly 650 months ago I began work on my master’s degree in dairy cattle genetics at Louisiana State University. About a mile west of the main campus was that ag college’s milking parlor, surrounded by cropland and pastures. Bordering the western edge of these flat fields lay an earthen ridge, stretching to the horizon from south to north. Once I was collecting cattle data in the open air subtropical milking parlor. While looking to the west, I was surprised to see a seagoing freighter steaming northward, just the other side of that earthen ridge, which turned out to be a levee. That levee keeps the Mississippi River (the “Big Muddy”) where it belongs when water levels get high. But Big Muddy’s water getting too high currently isn’t much of a threat, because the Mississippi’s waters have fallen to historic lows, intensifying a shipping crisis impacting the heart of the U.S.
The Mississippi is the nation’s largest water shipping channel, running from northern Minnesota down through the Midwest plains and emptying through Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico; numerous tributaries stretch east and west. That boat-based commerce relies on deep waters, which accommodate hefty vessels carrying cargo like soybeans, corn, fertilizer and oil. According to the National Park Service, “Big Muddy” drains an area of about 1.2 million square miles, including all or parts of 32 states and two Canadian provinces, and encompasses about 40% of the continental U.S. Part of western New York belongs to the Mississippi basin. Sections of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Allegany counties are drained by the Allegheny River, which spills into the Ohio River, which feeds the Mississippi.
A Midwest Center Investigative Reporting article at investigatemidwest.org explains what happens when the Mississippi River doesn’t have enough water to be itself. This blend of chaos is adeptly described in an article titled “Low Mississippi River has barges running aground, farmers’ crops piling up.” I’ll hit the high spots of this Oct. 11 story written by Keely Brewer.
She wrote that harvest season was underway for crops such as soybeans and corn, but farmers’ yields were piling up. Near-historic low water levels on the Mississippi slowed down barges, driving up shipping costs. With lower cargo capacity, shipments are backlogged. Until barge traffic picks up, shippers and farmers continue bearing the brunt of high rates. During the first week of October the river approached historic lows in Memphis. The Mississippi was seven feet below the National Weather Service (NWS) gauge there – just a few feet higher than the all-time low in 1988, when a devastating drought swept much of the Midwest. That history repeated itself four years later with “Drought 2012.” The NWS was projecting that the Big Muddy would continue inching closer to that record by the end of October 2022.
According to Brewer, the river was (at that time) so low that barges were running aground. The Coast Guard reported eight groundings in the lower Mississippi during the first week of October, including one near Memphis. Mike Johnson, NWS senior forecaster in Memphis, said that low rainfall this summer in the Mississippi Basin, coupled with record-high temperatures, had created a dire situation. Soybean and corn are the top ag exports on the Mississippi River, where ships carry them downriver to ports that export the commodities globally. The river accounts for more than half of these crops’ exports, and Memphis is the second-largest inland port on the river, with an annual economic impact of $9.27 billion, according to the Port of Memphis.
Barges are the most efficient shipping method. One barge has the same capacity as 35 train cars or 134 semi-trucks. Shipping capacity has fallen and rates have soared in recent weeks, according to USDA. A low river’s impact on barge traffic is twofold. The lower the water, the narrower the river, and the fewer barges can fit in the channels. And the lower the water, the lighter the load. Barge capacity has been reduced by at least 20% compared to normal, according to the American Commercial Barge Line, and the industry has agreed to reduce the number of barges per tow by up to 38%.
Generally, barges carry fertilizer upriver, and then backhaul grain to terminals in the South before winter weather closes in. If Midwest grain doesn’t find a berth on a barge going south before winter prevails, it may end up on trains headed to Pacific ports or to the Gulf Coast – a more expensive method of transportation. Costs for rail or truck shipping may be five times more than what would be paid for barge hauling. Because of impaired barge traffic, petroleum and coal shipments are also being forced onto trucks and rails.
Barges are more likely to run aground in low water, and docking is also more challenging. Towboats are called in to assist beached barges. For now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging the river to deepen channels and get barge traffic moving. The U.S. Coast Guard is managing long lines of vessels, operated by impatient pilots. The upper Mississippi River flow is controlled by locks and dams, while the river below St. Louis is free flowing. In an emergency, the Corps can release water from dams upriver to increase the depth downriver, but it’s reserved for dire situations.
Dire situations plagued European river freight before the Mississippi mess morphed into crisis mode. In early August, a shrunken Danube in Serbia revealed the wrecks of vessels scuttled by retreating Nazi forces at World War II’s end. Also, during that super-dry spell, Germany’s Rhine River was so low that barge payloads were reduced by two-thirds, meaning three vessels were required to carry the load normally borne by one. That European crisis was resolved by timely rain abundance before summer’s end. Many millions of people – not just farmers and commodity shippers – are praying that the Mississippi Basin becomes similarly blessed, and sooner, rather than later.