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Troubled Waters Have Barge Companies Saying "No"

posted on February 13, 2004

The CSP hearing in Iowa was unique in that it brought together rural interests who, more often than not, are on opposite sides of an issue. That's especially true on environmental matters.

Indeed, there's a delicate balance between nature and the activities of the human race. America's rivers are a prime example. Used for everything from commerce to recreation to power-generation, human activity on the nation's waterways impacts wildlife and water quality.

On the Missouri River, the debate over river use has raged for years and has landed in the court system on more than one occasion. It's also brought consequences to the agribusinesses that use the river. Nancy Crowfoot reports.


Troubled Waters Have Barge Companies Saying

It is winter and the only movement on this stretch of the Missouri River in northwest Iowa is the ice flow ... and a few ducks. Many river-dependent businesses fear once the snow and ice melts come spring -- there still won't be much movement here. At least, not the kind they say is needed to conduct business as usual.

Kevin Knepper, Big Soo Terminal, Sioux City, Iowa: "Roughly 30% of what we were unloading into the terminal was coming in by barge until now."

For the past several years, Kevin Knepper, General Manager of one of the largest terminals on the Missouri River, received up to 100,000 tons of products, including farm fertilizer, by barge.

But this year, his loading dock at the river's edge will be idle. Knepper learned in January the two major barge companies that run on the Missouri River won't be back this year. The reason is the likelihood the Army Corps of Engineers, which sets the river flows through several dams, will be forced this summer to reduce the water level for two birds and a fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.A U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service study suggests returning the river to its more natural flows of high water in spring but reduce the water level to at least 25,000 cubic feet in summer. That's too shallow for most barges and tows.

But many environmental groups say the low water is necessary to expose sandbars as nesting grounds for the protected piping plover and least tern.

Chad Smith American Rivers, Lincoln, Nebraska: "Well, it's just river biology 101 to know that you have to deal both with the river's habitat and the river's flow. You have to fix both simultaneously to get a river rejuvenated back to health."

But "fixing" the river for wildlife creates a split spring and fall shipping season. The navigation industry says barges would have to be removed during low water summers and there would be a loss of mid-season business: both costly.

But American River's Chad Smith contends summer is a natural downtime for the barge industry, so it shouldn't be such a hardship.

Chad Smith, American Rivers, Lincoln, Nebraska: "Navigation has always been an insignificant industry on the Missouri. And its become pretty easy to point to endangered species or concerns like that as a way to kind of back out a business that maybe hasn't always been very profitable."

Barge traffic has declined... from a high of 3.3 (M) million tons in 1977 to 1.5 (M) million tons the last couple of years. In comparison, the Mississippi River sees more than 81 (M) tons before flowing into St. Louis.

Nonetheless, shippers and their customers -- including farmers -- have come to rely on the river.

Gary Lengel, farmer, LeMars, Iowa: "It has always been a source of, for our inputs coming in and some exports of our corn down to the Gulf. I really thought agriculture was an important enough industry that the issues that we were dealing with thirteen years ago and we testified in from of the Corps would overweigh a couple of terns and a three-whiskered catfish."

John Askew, farmer, Thurman, Iowa: "It is a frustration, you know, we've lost marketing options."

There are many complex issues -- from wildlife habitat ... to navigation & from recreation ... to flood control for both low lying farmland and river towns ... and to power companies on the river generating electricity.

There have been many attempts at a compromise, but none to the satisfaction of all parties.

And while American Rivers' Chad Smith says he favors a compromise that includes navigation ... others say it may be too late. A couple years of drought conditions as well as more than dozen years of arguments over "proper" river flows have hindered whatever growth could be possible for the barge industry and its customers.

John Askew, farmer, Thurman, Iowa: "What we've seen in the last ten years, especially, that no one is doing any type of growing elevators or trying to grow the business on the river because of the uncertainty of what the Corps has been coming out with and what the current Fish and Wildlife position is. You wouldn't build a restaurant on an abandoned stretch of highway."

The Missouri River may just become much like an "abandoned highway" ... but navigation interests, like the Big Soo Terminal, are still fighting for the barge traffic they've depended upon for years.

At the same time, the company has increased its reliance on railroads.

Kevin Knepper, Big Soo Terminal, Sioux City, Iowa: "We saw the writing on the wall and if we were to lose river navigation traffic it would have a huge impact on the number of rail cars that we'll do and we needed more space too, to be able to facilitate that. We have enhanced our rail unloading capabilities. We are now able to actually take in about 75 cars into the terminal. In the past it was in the upper 30's."

Expanding rail ... and discontinuing barge service are moves these companies may have eventually made on their own, but they were decisions influenced at this particular time in anticipation of lower water levels. But the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to officially announce water flows for this year. That announcement is expected by early March.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


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