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Corps Keeps Barge Traffic Moving on Mississippi

posted on January 18, 2013


Last week, the government released its final crop report for 2012, and the numbers revealed the agricultural impact of the worst drought in 50 years.

According to USDA, America’s farmers produced 10.8 billion bushels of corn in 2012, down 27 percent from initial estimates last spring. Nevertheless, analysts say better technology averted steeper losses and enabled growers to harvest a crop that ranks as the 8th largest in history.

The challenge this winter has been moving all that corn to market -- especially those overseas. Sixty percent of U.S. grain exports travel at least a portion of their journey on the Mississippi River. But prolonged drought has drained the waterway to historic lows, and contractors are working feverishly to keep the Mississippi – and the commerce it supports – flowing. Paul Yeager explains

The Mississippi River Basin is the world’s 4th largest watershed and agriculture in the basin has always been a major player in the U.S. economy.  Farmers in the basin produce 92 percent of America’s agricultural exports and 78 percent of the world's exports of feed grains and oilseed. 

But last summer, the same drought that wreaked havoc on U.S. crops also threatened to put a stranglehold on the primary shipping artery for 60 percent of U.S. grain exports.           

Dan Overbey, Executive Director S.E. Missouri Regional Port Authority:  “For a country our size to be the industrial we are, you depend on, you need transportation and it needs to be reliable.”

Dan Overbey is the Executive Director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority… a terminal where a variety of cargo gets transferred from barge, truck and rail.    According to Overbey, the facility experienced an increase in activity last year as concerns grew over the drought’s impact on the Mississippi River.

Dan Overbey, Executive Director S.E. Missouri Regional Port Authority:  “The grain elevator here, Consolidated Grain and Barge, they worked around the clock for two weeks shipping out a million bushel pile of what they had stored here. Really, the whole export market from this part of the country is built on low-cost river transportation. And if you’re sitting up here with 30-40 barges, and their too deep to go through, you’ve got a real problem.”

The Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority is only two miles upriver from what has become ground zero in a battle to maintain navigable shipping lanes above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers… a war waged by the Army Corps of Engineers.  

Frank Segree, Master dredge Hurley:  “American people don’t understand that for every one barge that comes down this river, it takes 100 train cars to fill that barge. It is the cheapest, most economical thing going.”

Frank Segree is the Master of the dredge Hurley, the flagship in the Corps’ fleet of vessels charged with maintaining shipping channels on America’s waterways.

Frank Segree, Master dredge Hurley:  “And the bottom stops with the consumer. You, me, and everybody else, it affects every one of us and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Hurley is a dustpan dredge which operates much like a huge vacuum cleaner.  Anchored in the channel by two cables, the Hurley pulls itself forward with the help of two massive winches. High velocity water jets loosen up sand and silt which is sucked up by massive pumps.  The Hurley is capable of removing 5,000 cubic yards of river bottom every hour, and discharging the sediments outside of the river channel. 

Frank Segree, Master dredge Hurley:  “Congress mandated a 9 foot draft from Baton Rouge north. From Baton Rouge south, we maintain 4-5 feet draft. So we’re here to make sure the nation has nine foot. Commerce can bring 9 feet of draft down this waterway.”

Just upstream from the Hurley, private contractors have been enlisted to remove rocks from the river channel.  Their mission is a bit easier than usual because the drought has made the rock more accessible.

Mike Petersen, Army Corps of Engineers:  “The two contractors we have working this are out there and right now what they’re mainly doing is excavating the rock. They’re using heavy equipment to basically scoop it out of the bottom of the river. So we’ve been able to do the vast majority of the removal with mechanical means. We’re also doing some drilling and blasting as well.”

Despite the drought’s impact on water levels, the Corps believes it will be able to maintain a 9 foot channel on the Mississippi through spring.  That is contingent, however, on whether the river rises as it traditionally does when snow and ice melt further upstream. 

Mike Petersen, Army Corps of Engineers:  “Right now we’re winning battles but we’re looking at a long campaign. This is year one of a drought, we’re guaranteeing a better channel next year with the rock work we’re doing. We’re keeping commerce moving with the 24-7 dredging. Plus we’ve used some our lakes to release water to provide us with a little more depth when we need it. So we’ve won little battles along the way, but we’re keeping an eye on the long view.”

USDA estimates that nearly 80 percent of America’s agricultural land was impacted by drought in 2012, making it the most extensive drought since the 1950s.  If arid conditions persist through 2013 it will be a one-two punch with lower yields and increased shipping costs which, ultimately, will be passed on to consumers. 

Mike Petersen, Army Corps of Engineers:  “Right now, we’ve been able to accomplish the mission with the tools we have and the resources we have, that’s a little bit of a miracle. It’s been a fantastic success so far. But we have to remember the focus of this drought isn’t just the navigation channel on the Mississippi. It’s the entire Midwest.”

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.


Tags: Army Corps barge contractors dredge exports Mississippi river basin Rock shipping Thebes working