Missouri River will not rescue Mississippi River in 2013

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Not again! Yep, again.  Think back to late in 2012 when the Mississippi River was at a low water level, and emergency measures were being taken to keep barges southbound with corn and soybeans for export.  We may have déjà vu all over again.

The Lower Mississippi is being dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers in several places, and the Corps officials managing the Missouri River say they will likely not be able to help with extra water. 

Not again! 

Yep, again.

Farmgateblog.com reported to you a week ago about low water levels on the Mississippi and the threat to barges.  Despite some significant rains in the upper Midwest, conditions have not improved.  And the critical issues faced at the end of 2012 and the early part of 2013 seem to be resurfacing, which does not bode well for barge traffic and widens the grain basis.  Farmers will be less able to absorb that impact with 2013 prices than they were with 2012 prices.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Lower Mississippi from its Memphis office reports either shallow or critically shallow depths at barge points over 269 miles from Hickman, KY to Phillips County, AR.  Those harbors were all dredged late last year and most report a depth of 10 to 18 feet.  Barges generally need a 9 foot draft for normal operations. 

The Phillips County, AR harbor reports a depth of less than 6 feet.  And over the next month the prospects look grim due to continually declining water levels.

Corps officials report dredges in two locations with riverbank work at another location.  Funding for harbor and channel dredging exists, but all of the available funds have been allocated and new funding for FY 2014 is pending Congressional approval. (When and if Congress returns to work.)

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers managing the Missouri River have retained their general policy of water conservation that occurred last year.  Due to drought conditions in the Missouri watershed, the Corps is retaining water in large upstream reservoirs and is curtailing flow release rates that reduce the level of water in the Missouri.  The Missouri is a major tributary to the Mississippi just above St. Louis where barge drafts were restricted last winter to light loads that are more expensive. 

The same policy is being implemented for the winter season of 2013 and 2014. The policy is based on the amount of water runoff into the Missouri and its tributaries, which are running about 90 percent of normal.  Officials say the large reservoirs that are integral to the Missouri watershed are 4 to 10 feet below their desired level. 

Basically, the operating plan for the Missouri River watershed is a nearly carbon copy of the plan for the past year. “The 2013-2014 Draft Annual Operating Plan anticipates low, relatively stable runoff into the basin for the remainder of the 2013 calendar year and into early spring 2014.

As a result, the Corps expects system storage to be below the base of the annual flood control pool at the start of the 2014 runoff season, which begins on or around March 1, near the same level it was at the start of the 2013 runoff season.”

The release of the operating plan on the Missouri is not good news for the Mississippi River barge industry, particularly in the wake of the lower than normal levels of water on the Lower Mississippi River.  Such issues only serve as predictors to a challenging winter season for barges hauling 2013 grain south and 2014 fertilizer north.


The continuing drought in the central part of the US, which serves as the watersheds for the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, has diminished water flow in both rivers.  The Mississippi’s barge industry had difficulty throughout the winter of 2012 and 2013 because of low water levels, and that is shaping up to be the case again in the winter of 2013-2014. 

Because of the diminished rainfall in the Missouri watershed, river management has decided to retain its operating plan from last year, and avoid release of any large amounts of water in upstream reservoirs that might raise water levels in the Mississippi.

Source: FarmGate blog

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