C magazine

Weather extremes disrupt input and grain movement on U.S. rivers

Barge floating down river

Mar 01, 2021

Weather extremes are the biggest cause of freight disruptions on the U.S. river system and those disruptions are increasing, says Ben Doane, CHS grain marketing barge freight coordinator.

“In the past two years we’ve had to deal with weather-related issues along nearly all segments of the Mississippi River,” he says. “In both 2019 and 2020, the New Orleans, La., corridor at the southern end was at or near flood stage for nearly half of the year. In 2019, spring flooding completely cut off barge traffic north of St. Louis for three months. Last fall and this winter, we had to deal with low water levels on parts of the mid-Mississippi that have slowed barge transit.”

Reduced Passage Increases Costs 

Those slowdowns can have a significant impact on freight costs, he notes. “Last year, when the Mississippi River south of St. Louis was experiencing high water levels and fast currents, tow sizes were reduced from 40 to 25 barges for safer navigation. That 37% decrease in volume hauled per tow increased transportation costs.”

When river levels drop, the amount of grain or fertilizer that can be loaded onto each barge is often reduced to decrease draft (depth of the barge below the water surface).

Constant Adjustment 

All navigational requirements can be adjusted by the U.S. Coast Guard to suit river conditions, explains Doane. “Smaller barge drafts, fewer barges per tow and slower tow speeds all impact the river supply chain. We often see huge bottlenecks where tows are being built or broken down.”

St. Louis is a prime example, he says. “It’s the biggest harbor outside of the Gulf in terms of commodity volumes passing through. Just to the north is the exit and entry point for the Illinois River and to the south at Cairo, Ill., is the mouth of the Ohio River. High or low water issues within that stretch of the river can bog down barge movement to a significant portion of the country.”

This article appeared as part of the cover story in C magazine. Read the full article to learn how growers are finding ways to get more from every drop of water.