Mississippi River System – Flood Issues Top to Bottom – DTN

Towboat and barge on the Mississippi Ridge near the Helena, Arkansas bridge. Photo: Robert Goodson, U of Arkansas

It’s no secret that it’s been a very rough year so far on the entire Mississippi River System. Never-ending rains have kept water levels high, closing many locks and dams more than once and shuttering the St. Louis Harbor numerous times, virtually stopping any traffic north or south of there. In fact, the Lower Mississippi River (LMR) has experienced continued flooding events since February 2019.

In the Upper Mississippi River (UMR), Locks 11 through 27 from the Illinois-Wisconsin border to St. Louis have been closed on and off over three months due to flooding conditions.

The Mississippi River at St. Louis has been at or above flood stage for 108 consecutive days as of July 2, topping the previous record of 104 days set during the Great Flood of 1993. The flooding caused the U.S. Coast Guard to close the harbor twice when the levels reached above 38 feet. Between those closures and the lock and dam closures, loaded and/or empty barges were stuck in the UMR with nowhere to go.

In the LMR at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river was at 49.08 feet on July 15 (major flood stage is 50 feet) and is not expected to fall below flood stage until the end of July. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the river has been in flood stage most of 2019 and now, thanks to Barry, it may be until August when the Mississippi River there slips below flood stage. As of July 15, the river there was above major flood stage (35 feet) at 42.17 feet.

The river stage in New Orleans has been in its longest sustained flood stage level on record. The National Weather Service surge prediction on the Mississippi River there, because of Barry, was originally expected to be at 19 to 20 feet. The actual surge crest pushed the river to 16.93 feet late in the evening of July 12. The water level is not expected to go below 16 feet until late July, according to current predictions.

“The historically high water levels throughout the inland waterway system, including in the lower Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico, have been a consistent struggle for barge transportation feeding into the lower Mississippi River and have impeded the ability to load ocean vessels to their normal capacity,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

“The 256-mile stretch of the Lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 60% of U.S. soybean exports and 59% of U.S. corn exports, by far the leading export region for both commodities.”

On July 9, the bar pilots (those responsible for navigating ocean vessels into and out of the lower Mississippi River), suspended all ships entering and exiting the lower river at the Southwest Pass due to the impending arrival of Barry. “As a result of that closure, soybean and grain exporters in the region will not be receiving or launching any vessels until the suspension has been lifted,” said Steenhoek.

“I am aware of soybean and grain exporters along the lower Mississippi River declaring force majeure, a provision in a contract that relieves a party (the soybean and grain exporter, in this case) from fulfilling the contract obligation due to events, like weather, that are outside their control.”

BARGE MOVEMENTS TO THE GULF JUST STARTED TO RECOVER

In their weekly Grain Transportation Report, USDA noted for the week ended July 6, barge grain movements totaled 779,876 tons, a 5% increase from the previous week and 33% lower than the same period last year. For the week ended July 4, 26 ocean-going grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf. This is 8% more than the same period last year.

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Back in late June, when the St. Louis Harbor was closed, along with many of the locks in the UMR, USDA noted for the week ended June 22, barge grain movements totaled 161,662 tons. That was a 51% decrease from the previous week and 85% lower than the same period last year. For the week ended June 20, 21 ocean-going grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf, 28% fewer than the same period last year

For the week ended June 8, data for barge grain movements was not available because barges were stopped from moving south through Lock and Dam 27 on the Mississippi River because lock closures in the UMR and the flooding in the St. Louis that closed the harbor.

Mike Steenhoek said, “Our disruption in trade has impeded farmers’ ability to market their crop. Flooding this year has complicated farmers’ ability to transport that crop. We were finally starting to see some relief along the inland waterway system and southern Louisiana. According to the USDA for the week ended June 29, 373 soybean and grain barges were unloaded in the New Orleans area, a 41% increase from the previous week.

“Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Barry is imposing itself on this critical area of the agricultural logistics chain, which will only further encumber our ability to meet customer demand,” added Steenhoek.

Here is a link to the NWS Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn

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