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Impact of Low Mississippi River Could be Widespread

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 24 Jul 2012 05:22pm | comments
The white lines on the wall indicate record flood levels.

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River is slowed to a crawl. This is a result of extremely low Mississippi river levels caused by a drought across much of the country. MPB's Jeffrey Hess reports how the low levels are impacting Mississippi shippers and businesses that rely on the river.

A barge idles at a dock in Vicksburg.

Because of the low river, Barges like this are moving far less products, cutting their speed in half, and finding days of additional travel time added to each trip.

The river level is a stunning contrast to last year's near record flood....At Vicksburg, the Mississippi river is now is fifty-five feet lower than at the height of the 2011 flood.

"You can see the water has a little texture to it. I would say you could probably walk out there if you want to. It is probably four or five feet deep,"

Austin Golding watches a barge navigate the river from the back porch of his family company Golding Barge Line.

Golding's company moves petroleum products up and down the Mississippi river from producers to refineries.

With the river level so low, they have had to cut back on how much they load on the barge, and add additional fuel and time to each trip.

"Low water the channel is narrow so you have to go slower and be careful. Think about driving on a narrow country road that is paved. You are still going to take more time going around that than you would a paved interstate," Golding said.

The decreased load size and increased trip times add up to a make shipping for companies along the Mississippi much more expensive....an expense that Golding says gets past on to the consumer.

"Nobody is going to eat that expense. No company is just going to say, 'well, it may cost me 10% more to move this product but I am not going to raise the price at the pump. I am not going to raise my price at the grocery store'. Nope. They are going try to maintain their margins and the consumer will be the one that pays for the low water," Golding said.

Millions of tons of goods of all sorts travel the Mississippi river, making it a vital part of the American economy.

Ports in the delta are key places for Mississippi farmers to move their crops says Rosedale Port Director Robert Maxwell.

"99% percent of everything that comes through this port is an agriculturally commodity or related to agriculture such as fertilizer. Liquid and dry fertilizer both," Maxwell said.

Normally the water level at the Rosedale port is 15 feet deep, after reaching record levels last year it is now down to just seven feet.

The Army Corp of Engineers sped up its planned dredging at Rosedale just to keep the port open.

The drought has pushed corn prices to record highs and Maxwell says many Mississippi farmers are faring well compared to other parts of the country.

Their challenge now is getting those crops to market.

"There is a lot of commodities that are going to be moved in order to make sure you can get the crop out of the field so that it doesn't just sit in the field and rot," Maxwell said.

The US Coast guard is responsible for marking the safe passageways along the Mississippi river and deciding when...or if....the the river should be closed.

Commander Timothy Whent says commercial shipping is a factor when they make the call to close sections of the river.

"Everything that we do gets taken into account. The potential impact to individual companies and also the industry as a whole is something that we do consider before we implement any type of regulation," Whent said.

Barges have already run a ground, recently one hit the sand near Tunica, forcing the coast guard to shut down parts of the river for a day and a half.

Unless large parts of the country get substantial amounts of rain soon, the Mississippi river will continue to run low and fall further through September.

Mississippi shippers, ports and businesses that rely on the river are left with few options except to pray for more rain.



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