A barge pushes materials on the Mississippi River in summer 2012. (Carrie Muehling/WJBC)
By Stephanie Pawlowski
BLOOMINGTON - It is expected river traffic on the middle Mississippi River will come to a halt in mid January because there's just not enough water.
Executive Director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association Rodney Weinzierl said typically, water levels are twelve feet higher than they are now.
"The barge tows, instead of pushing five barges wide, six barges long, so a total of 30 barges, right now they can only push three barges wide, and five long. So, we've gone from 30 barges to 15 barges," Weinzierl said.
It's about 40 percent of the tonnage typically shipped on the river. Barges on the Mississippi carry everything from grain to soybeans, coal, petroleum, fertilizer, steel, salt, sand, railroad rails and much more. Weinzierl said drafts could drop as low as seven feet next month, meaning only one barge will be able to pass at a time. He said eventually, the cost of not being able to ship will affect the cost of products.
Another consumer impact will be traffic. Weinzierl said companies will have to use rail and semi trucks to transport materials.
"If the river would close down for 60 days, that would be the equivalent of around 750,000 more semis on the roads that it would take to carry the tonnage that barge tows could carry," Weinzierl said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been planning for the low levels since the end of summer. The agency held higher levels of water in the upper Mississippi, the Illinois River, Lake Carlyle and Lake Shelbyville. The Corps is also trying to help barges by removing rock tentacles, but Weinzierl said that will only add about a 1.5 foot depth.
What's needed is precipitation. Agencies have also been putting pressure on the federal government to make governments in North Dakota and Minnesota release reservoirs to help levels on the Mississippi.
The Corn Growers Association also said lost markets on river exports are not as quickly regained as others because foreign nations could start buying corn from Brazil and keep doing business there even after U.S. shipments pick back up.
The Association also said more than 410 tows would be impacted by the closure, more than 10,600 barges would be stopped and 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages and benefits would be impacted.