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Huge Dredging Barge Tries To Stay Ahead Of The Falling Mississippi River

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 16 Aug 2012 05:01pm | comments

The drought across much of the US is slowing barge traffic on the Mississippi River to a crawl. This main shipping thoroughfare is  a vital part of the American economy. MPB's Jeffrey Hess reports on efforts to keep the barges moving.

"Right now I am on the deck of the Army Corps' dredging barge called the Jadwin. The way it works, is that they find low spots in the river and they come up with what is essentially a big dust pan with water jets. The jets then stir up the sediment at the low parts of the river. It is vacuumed down a long metal pipe and then ejected in the middle of the channel in a big spray of water and sediment,"

A few miles north of Tunica the Jadwin is crawling along a low spot in the middle of the Mississippi river sucking up sand and silt to make sure the river is deep enough for barges to pass.

200-million tons of cargo travel the Mississippi River every year and it is the responsibility of this boat and its captain Randy Stockton to keep that traffic flowing.

"Trying to have a 9 foot channel at least. That is kind of difficult right now. We discharge our material out 1,000 feet away from us. Displace the material out of the channel area onto the bars and shoals," Stockton said.

The Jadwin is a big boxy ship, 253 feet long with 4 decks and a 45 man crew that lives on the boat working around the clock.

Every 24 hours the Jadwin sucks up enough sand from the bottom of the Mississippi river to cover a football field 15 feet deep.

From the pilot house on the barge, Kavanaugh Breazeale with the Army Corps watches a news cast that is taking place live on the ship's deck.

Breazeale says the Army Corps is required to keep the river at least 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide...that's a big task in the face of a drought that is not only huge in scale but very early in the season.

"This is normally the start of the low water season here in late August early September. So we have been at near record lows since June," Breazeale said.

In additionto making sure barges can travel up and down the Mississippi River, the Army Corps has contracted with smaller companies to dredge out Mississippi's ports along the way.

To make matters worse, Breazeale says the Corps is starting at a disadvantage due to last year's record flood.

"We are also having to dredge materials and debris that are left over from the historic flood last year. So even if weren't at lower than normal levels, the floor of the river would still be higher than normal," Breazeale said.

The Mississippi River plays a key role in the health of the American economy, acting as an aquatic superhighway for all types of products.

Even if the Corps is able to keep it open, the low river has already taken its toll on shipping companies.

They are loading less cargo onto their barges, which prevents the barge from getting stuck in low spots long the river.

Austin Golding with the Vicksburg-based Golding Barge Line says even a few inch change in barge depth could drive up to cost of shipping everything from food to fuel.

That 6 inches can be up to 5-to-0 -thousand barrels. That tow right there is going to be able to carry 25-thousand barrels per barge. 25-thousands times 42 times whatever you see the price at the pump gets into several million dollars per barge," Golding said.

The crew of the Jadwin is working 24/7 on the Mississippi River to deepen low spots.

The Jadwin has been dredging the river since it was built in 1933 when it was run by steam.

Without massive amount of rain upstream, dredging its basically the only option left to keep commerce on the Mississippi flowing.

However the river is not expected to rise until after the end of this brutally hot summer.



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