That means each tow boat is moving less cargo than usual even though “it takes up the same amount of fuel to burn and the same amount of manpower,” said Ed Henleben, senior operations manager for Ingram Barge Co. in St. Louis.
Already this summer, there are been 15 to 20 cases of barges running aground, according to Steve Jones, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Mississippi River navigation manager. Some cases have stalled river traffic for as much at three days. At this point in an average summer, there’d be only about eight or 10, said Jones.
And as the water drops, the river channel narrows. In some places, the Mississippi is a one-way river as barges heading north have to wait for traffic headed south, adding to the costly delays.
The result: Millions of dollars in higher shipping costs.
“The products we tow, that product costs more,” said Golding. “Somebody’s got to come up with that cost.”
Economists say ultimately, it will be the consumer. “Some markets such as spot markets for agricultural products will be immediately impacted by increased transportation costs,” said Donald Sweeney of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The navigational hazards of the low water levels are compounded by last year’s flooding, which resulted in a great deal of soil and silt being washed into the river, altering and raising the riverbed.
Because of that sediment in a flood, “as the ceiling rises, so does the floor,” said Golding. “We’ve just dealt with a historic flood, then the water drops.… We have some 50-year guys who’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s a completely different river than anybody’s ever seen.”
As the Army Corps of Engineers’ navigation manager, Jones spend eight to 10 hours a day directing dredges to keep a navigable channel from St. Louis south at least nine feet deep (a system of locks and dams manages the water depth north of St. Louis). So far, the government has spent about $60 million in the effort.
The low water levels in the Mississippi are also resulting in a wedge of salt water creeping upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the drinking water supply in New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to begin work this week on a $5.8 million underwater barrier to block the saltwater’s advance.
The river’s low levels are the result of a combination of the mild winter in the Upper Midwest, which resulted in very little snow melt to feed the river, and the dry spring and summer in the tributaries to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
What will it take to get the Mississippi back to normal? Jones says: “Rainfall – which will occur, it’s just a question of when.”
Intellpuke: You can read this article by NBC News correspondent John Yang, reporting from Tunica, Mississippi, in context here: usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/15/13295072-drought-sends-mississippi-into-uncharted-territory?lite