Market Matters Blog
Pam Smith DTN\Progressive Farmer Crops Technology Editor

Friday 12/14/12

Tale of Two Rivers

WEST ALTON, Mo. (DTN) -- A deceptive calm hovered at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers this week. The thin line where the waters merge was barely visible and seemed hardly able to summon the energy to lap at the exposed rocky shore.

The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers lies just south of Alton, Ill. Barge traffic is still moving, but the next two weeks could be slow going. (DTN photo by Pam Smith)

On the Missouri side a lone fisherman piloted his craft around sandbars and stopped to try his luck along a diversion dike that would normally be submerged. Meanwhile, on the Mississippi, the Samuel B. Richmond, an Ingram Barge Company boat, cautiously pushed barges northward.

While the waters outwardly appeared still, controversy continues to swirl around these two rivers. Last week, more than 20 agricultural and waterway organizations joined together to send a letter to government officials requesting action to maintain barge navigation on the Mississippi River.

Continued drought conditions in the Missouri River basin have caused the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flows below South Dakota's Gavins Point Dam to 12,000 cubic foot per second. Toward the end of November, releases were running at 37,000 cubic feet per second.

"Every 7,000 cubic feet per second equals one foot of water," Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president, Ingram Barge Lines, told DTN. "That's 3.5 feet of water taken out of the Mississippi, and that's being fully experienced by all of us who depend on these waterways."

Corps press releases have emphasized that the group does not have the authority, per the manual guiding uses of the Missouri River, to operate solely for the benefit of the Mississippi. Opposing arguments point out that the corps is statutorily authorized to maintain a 9-foot draft to maintain commercial navigation.

As of 11:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 14, the National Weather Service pegged the St. Louis harbor river stage at 2.89 feet below normal. The Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service indicated that could drop to 5.0 feet below normal by Christmas, and by early January the water level could drop to 6.0 feet below normal.

Mecklenborg said barge traffic is already impaired and unless action is taken or rains arrive, the nation's water equivalent of an interstate highway could become impassable within the next two weeks -- one of the busiest and most critical periods of the year for southbound export grain shipments and northbound fertilizer shipments.

Below Cairo, the Mississippi gets a warm welcome from the Ohio River. Freezing below the Ohio and Mississippi confluence is rare. "When water gets this low, it doesn't move as quickly," Mecklenborg said. "So it's more susceptible to a cold snap. Shippers are always nervous about getting through this time of year, but this year that is intensified."

The real bottleneck is a strategic 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that flows south from St. Louis to Cairo. The corps and U.S. Coast Guard have estimated record-low water levels should occur about Dec. 26 in the mid-Mississippi River region. Plans to remove rock pinnacles at Thebes and Grand Tower (Illinois) and continued dredging activities have been announced.

"Even if some changes are made now [in Missouri River releases], there's no way to avoid some of these issues," Mecklenborg said.

"Right now, we have the equivalent of a two-way street turned into a one-way," he noted. "Two regular tows can't pass each other. One has to pull over and wait in several parts of the channel. That's a loss of time."

He explained that normal boats need at least 9 feet of water to keep propellers from hitting river bottom. "There are smaller tugs that have 7.5-feet drafts and we have moved those into that region. However, they can't push a regular fleet of barges."

The shallow channels are also changing how barges are loaded. A barge is typically loaded to a 10-foot depth and each foot of draft equals approximately 200 tons of cargo. "We're now loading to 8 feet and that's tremendously inefficient transportation," Mecklenborg said. "We are charging shippers to cover some of that cost.

"We're also giving shippers the option of loading to 9 feet, but we don't make any promises. If they are loaded to that depth and we get hung up, they pay the demurrage," he added. Demurrage is the equivalent of paying rent for the length of time the vessel remains inactive.

Mecklenborg said he understands those upstream along the Missouri have rights and competing interests. "However, the amount of water we need is only 2% to 3% of the available reservoir capacity and we do not think that's an unreasonable amount.

"We have sought to resolve this through political channels rather than legal challenges," he added. "We're spending a lot of time trying to get the president to see this as an emergency situation.

"Long term, we think it's important that people understand that the Missouri and Mississippi are integrally linked and should be managed in a more holistic fashion."

In 1721, French explorer Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix wrote of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers: "I believe this is the finest confluence in the world. The two rivers are much the same breath, each about half a league; but the Missouri is by far the most rapid, and seems to enter the Mississippi like a conqueror, through which it carries its white waters to the opposite shores without mixing them, after wards, it gives its color to the Mississippi which it never loses again but carries quite down to the sea..."

Nearly 300 years later, the tale of these two rivers seems to be: How much should the Missouri be required to give?

Pam Smith can be reached at

Posted at 4:15PM CST 12/14/12 by Pam Smith
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