U.S. Army Corps Kept Traffic Moving on Mississippi During Drought of 2012

The Midwestern drought of 2012 nearly closed barge traffic on parts of the Mississippi River.

“It’s back to normal now,” said Kenny Gober, executive director of the Yellow Bend Port Authority in McGehee, one of four Arkansas ports on the Mississippi River. The others are at Helena-West Helena, Osceola and West Memphis. “But for awhile there it was touch and go.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped keep the Mississippi River open through advances made at its Applied River Engineering Center in St. Louis.

Between July and January, the Corps dredged 8 million cubic yards of sediment from the bottom of the river, which helped keep its channel clear, said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the St. Louis district of the Corps of Engineers.

That amount compares to 18 million cubic yards dredged during a low-water period in the late 1980s, Petersen said.

“We were able to keep the channel open with less than half the dredging,” he said.

But even with all the technological advances the Corps has made, there is only so much it can do in droughts.

“There’s not a lot that can prevent [low-water levels on the Mississippi], because it’s a lack of rain,” Petersen said. “So unless we can engineer to make rain, it’s likely to be something we’ll run into again.”

He said the river will probably see low levels again in the fall and winter because of the lack of snow and rain in the December and January.

“We’re still in a drought,” Petersen said.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced the launch of the Mississippi River Caucus to improve the river.

“We learned a vital lesson this past fall when a potential disruption in navigation along the Mississippi threatened everything from increasing the cost to move goods to potential job losses,” Harkin said in a news release.

“The Mississippi River Caucus will look at ways that Congress can be helpful to the cities and towns along the river to improve their economies and their qualities of life, and to better respond to floods and other threats.”

Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., of Arlington, Va., would like to see more work done on the Mississippi River to keep the shipping lanes flowing.

“It can’t just be dredging,” said Colbert, whose group lobbies for carriers and ports.

“We are going to need to figure out water sources and if there’s a way to always maintain the channel for navigation.”

The Waterways Council will lobby Congress for funding to improve the network of lock and dams on the Mississippi River.

She said her group will ask the federal government to pay $380 million a year for the next 20 years for the renovations. The river barge industry already pays about $110 million in diesel fuel tax and is willing to pay more for the upgrades.

“The infrastructure requires reinvestment,” Colbert said.

“The inland waterway system is just as important as any other transportation network and system. So we need to make sure that it’s properly funded for the future.”

Having a low Mississippi River hurts the Arkansas ports along it, said Gene Higginbotham, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission.

“Anything coming out of a port in Arkansas on the Mississippi is having a light load,” he said. “It’s just not as efficient.”

He fears shippers could start looking for other alternatives to transporting goods if they have to spend more on moving items on the Mississippi River.

The Corps’ Petersen said that at the end of 2011, he and others knew 2012 would be a low-water level year for the Mississippi, even though in 2011 there had been so much water it flooded.

“We knew we didn’t have enough snow pack in the system,” he said.

The Corps started the dredging process in July and was dredging the river around the clock for seven months.

“So through a combination of river engineering and dredging and water management, we have to make sure there’s at least 9 feet of depth for navigation,” Petersen said.

The team of specialized engineers and technicians at the engineering center used models of the Mississippi River to solve a number of river engineering issues, including dredging.

“Through that process they’ve been able to come up with some innovative designs,” he said.

Those designs included arch-shaped dike structures called chevrons, which are built parallel to the flow of the river. The chevrons are similar to regular dikes and use the energy of the river to redistribute the flow of the river and the sediment. Petersen said the chevrons reduced the amount of sediment that had to be removed last year.

Gober at the Yellow Bend Port Authority said barges weren’t fully loaded for fear of running aground because of low levels on the Mississippi River.

Typically a barge for grain would be in the 2,000 ton range, but because of the river conditions, the weight on the barge’s load had to be reduced by nearly 40 percent.

Still, the Yellow Bend port saw a 25 percent increase of tonnage moved in 2012 to 250,000 tons, Gober said. He attributed the rise of tonnage to moving larger quality of grain.

Gober wouldn’t say how much income the port lost because of the low-water levels.

“Even though we’re moving larger quantities of grain, ... it’s taken us a lot longer period to do it,” he said.