2012 Not A Good Year For River Industries

Dec 30, 2012

Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

2012 was a terrible year to be a river, or own or work on a tow boat hauling barges up and down a river for that matter.

Paducah is the self-proclaimed inland waterways hub of the United States. In recent data touted by its economic development council in one year 90 million tons of cargo and 8,000 vessels passed through its waterways.  

But American Waterways Operators spokesperson Ann McCulloch says historically low levels on the Mississippi and fear of another drought threatens the amount of traffic through Paducah, and other ports in our region.

“Say a typical tow has 25 barges,” McCulloch said. “Some of those movements on the Mississippi River this summer were made much smaller, perhaps down to 15 to 20 barges. So the industry has already been operating under a reduced capacity. And the continuing drought, as it has continued in the fall and now into the winter has really made this an unprecedented situation.”  

Low water means less weight per barge, which means two possible things more lighter barges and longer tows which present navigation challenges or more tow boats with lighter shorter barge tows. This all creates a situation river industries aren’t prepared for. They would have to hire more workers for the barges, which is a plus. But transport prices would increase.

“It’s safe to say there are thousands of jobs in the states up and down the river, particularly in Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana, that would be potentially negatively impacted if commerce cannot move up and down that vital river corridor,” McCulloch said. “And then the ripple affects you would see in the communities that rely upon the river would grow from there.”

The river was not completely without rain this year. What little precipitation the region got kept river traffic from coming to a halt. And the Army Corps of Engineers freed up millions of dollars in federal emergency funding to dredge shallow harbors. But now the Corps is worried about drought in 2013. To prepare for that scenario it’s cutting flow from the Missouri River into the Mississippi near St. Louis. This Catch-22 has the barge industry at odds with itself. The Missouri’s water is important for keeping stable winter river levels. But if there is another drought it could lead to both economic and natural disaster.

Pat Jamison is a river expert. The Marion, Kentucky native started as a river boat pilot in 1957. Now he’s an expert witness in river industry lawsuits. He says it’s up to the barge companies to make the right decision.

“And already I’m sure the barge companies are loading back heavy drafts, taking more barges,” Jamison said. “And what will happen, once that river gets to falling, that channel will change, that sand will move. And then if they keep trying to take what I call over tonnage, one of them gets on the ground and they have to dig those barges off and that tears up the channel for everybody. So they have to use just a little common sense and not get real greedy.”

Jamison says companies can’t accept radical changes in how the river naturally works.

“If the boats are going to keep operating they are going to have to cut back on the tonnage,” Jamison said. “It’s that simple. And these big grain companies, like ADM and Cargill, they think its horrible cause they can’t just dial 911 and someone in the Corp of Engineers turns loose a bunch of water for them. It just doesn’t work that way.”

The river industry has petitioned the Obama Administration and several state governors to declare a federal emergency to turn the Missouri River back on. But with seemingly larger problems to deal with in the coming days it doesn’t look like Washington is going to act anytime soon. And the Corps says it will stand by its decision to hold back the Missouri’s waters.

That's the government, but what about mother nature?  National Weather Service hydrologist Mary Lamb says 2013 will be better than 2012, at least initially.                     

“Through most of the winter months we are expecting above chances for precipitation, especially across the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys,” Lamb said.

That’s not saying much. We ended the year with a 19 inch precipitation deficit.