Barge Traffic Tied In Knots On Mississippi

Wednesday, May 16, 2001
U.S. Midwestern grain shippers were getting ready to move barges into the upper Mississippi River on Tuesday but estimated it could be two to three weeks before trapped barges along the river make it to the Gulf. Weekend rains that dropped 3 to 6 inches of rain over a six-county area in northern Missouri and southern Iowa, coupled with swollen river conditions in the upper Mississippi, resulted in two more Mississippi lock closures this week. Lock 24 at Clarksville, Missouri, and lock 25 at Winfield, Missouri, were shut down to traffic on Monday. Both locks are north of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

These new closures, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers extending the reopening of lock 20 at Canton, Missouri, until May 22 were seen pushing back the arrival of Midwest grain barges at the U.S. Gulf. Shippers expected it would be early June before barges trapped in the upper Mississippi would be at the Gulf. About 200 barges have been stalled along the upper-Mississippi since April, when the U.S. Coast Guard shut down a 486-mile stretch of the river due to high water levels.

But the actual arrival of grain barges would depend on locks 24 and 25 also opening by May 22, industry sources said. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Army Corps had not scheduled a reopening date for the Clarksville or Winfield locks. River forecasts called for the Mississippi to crest at Clarksville and Winfield later this week -- 7 to 8 feet above flood stage.

"We usually have anywhere from 10 to 13 boats operating in the upper Mississippi this time of year," said Peter Rumsey, senior vice president with Ingram Barge Lines. "All those boats are stopped. A few are in the upper Mississippi but most are still below St. Louis." "They are being crewed up now. We want to be in position to move north as soon as the locks open," Rumsey said.

During May, approximately 4.3 million tons of cargo move through the locks at Clarksville and Winfield, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the amount of cargo that passes through those locks this spring is expected to be off significantly as barge traffic on the upper Mississippi is at a standstill. Even after the locks and river reopen, industry sources anticipate it could another six weeks before the delivery cycle returns to normal. Navigational restrictions, anticipated backlogs at the river locks and added loading time at elevators and terminals were expected to slow the shipping process.

The locks were originally scheduled to reopen by mid-May and shippers were hoping barge movement would be back to a regular delivery cycle by late June. But delays to the lock reopenings have the barge industry reevaluating plans, with many not expecting the traffic to return to a normal pace until early July. "There's a tremendous amount of grain that wants to move, coal to fuel power plants, fertilizer -- all kinds of inputs that are stopped," said Dale Goodmundson, vice president with Alter Barge Line in Bettendorf, Iowa. "It's a real backlog and we'll have to play catch up all summer," Goodmundson said. - (Reuters)

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