Without rain, rivers dry up and barge traffic slows

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Any water in your rain gauge? Any moisture in your soil? Don’t feel left out because Cornbelt farmers seem to be brothers in the bond when it comes to dryland farming. At least, more dry than they would like. And after a brief wet spell this past spring, Cornbelt agriculture has returned to the drought conditions that were pervasive in 2012. While crops are either beyond, or soon will be beyond that point of rain being beneficial, there is a substantial need for rain that may not be at the top of your mind.

For all practical purposes, it is too late for rain to help 2013 corn and soybean crops, and too early for 2014 soil moisture to be at a critical juncture, but water is direly needed in the navigable rivers in the Cornbelt to get grain to the Gulf terminals for export. If you live close enough to the rivers, you are aware that weed seeds will germinate in stream beds when water levels are low. And major rivers have more bank showing on the sides that can usually be seen. If you are not close, one only has to look at the river gages, maintained by either the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Geological Survey to realize that water levels are all flirting with minimums.

click image to zoom Dubuque Gage

The Upper Mississippi is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers at Rock Island, Illinois. That district office reports the river level at Dubuque, Iowa, has spent the month of September at a steady level of about four feet on the gage. However, that is at a historic low level. Corps dredges are at work in that region to ensure the channel depth is maintained. From that point south gages reflect steady, but very low water levels. Much of the depth is controlled by locks and dams to achieve minimum levels of water.

click image to zoom St.Louis gage

Problems begin to increase below the confluence with the Missouri River, which drains much of the territory that has been the driest according to the Drought Monitor. Downriver the river level gage at St. Louis, which is just below the iconic Arch, shows a water level of -1 foot, which is a relative water level. However, at -5 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers begins depth restrictions on barges to prevent grounding on shoals and sandbars. Consequently, barges cannot be fully loaded and transportation costs per bushel of grain hauled increases. Such increases are reflected in the basis.

click image to zoom Chester gage

The gage at Chester, Illinois is maintained by the US Geological Survey and indicates the level of water since the first of January. It nearly has returned to the level it was at the first of the year, when so much trouble was occurring in that section of the river because submerged shoals were causing barges to hang up and block the channel. Corps dredges worked around the clock to keep the channel open, sometimes with only one way traffic for barge tows.

click image to zoom Helena gage

Below the confluence with the Ohio River, the problems are still not solved. While the Mississippi river is wider and carries more water, the depth of the water is still more shallow than normal and the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers is also engaged in dredging. At a major barge loading point at Helena, AR, the water level has dropped 15 feet over the month of September, and the depth is at the critical point for depth restrictions on barges.

click image to zoom Rainfall 

The problem stems from the lack of rain fall in the second half of the summer. According to the Midwest Regional Climate Center, the abundant rain that occurred April through June (top) suddenly halted in July and the remainder of the summer (bottom) has been four to 6 inches less than normal for most of the Mississippi River watershed.

click image to zoom Summary:

Water levels on the Mississippi River have been at perilously low levels due to the lack of rainfall in the watershed since the middle of the summer. Locks and dams have maintained minimum levels of water as best they can, but without water, barge traffic will be restricted.  Reduced drafts on barge tows will allow grain to move from the Cornbelt to the Gulf, but with fewer bushels loaded, costs will increase and grain prices will reflect the wider basis.

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