U.S. harvest means a lot of grain moving through the nation’s inland waterway system for shipping to world markets. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, says the dry weather plaguing farm country is causing the lowest river levels in decades.
“The water levels on the whole inland waterway system, particularly the Mississippi River, are at considerable low levels right now, and it couldn’t come at a more inopportune time. As we proceed more and more into harvest season, there’s just so much freight, soybeans, grain, that’s flowing to the river. And the goal is for it to be loaded onto a barge and then moved down to the New Orleans area, where it’s loaded onto an ocean vessel for the export market. And we’ve just had persistent low water levels, and it’s getting more and more acute.”
He talks about how the lower levels are impacting shipping.
“Number one, channel depths, and then number two, channel width. When you have less water, you can’t load each barge with as much freight as you normally would. I was concerned that you might have a grounding of that barge, and we’ve had multiple occasions of that already, and one was reported on the Ohio River, so that’s something that continues to happen. For one foot less of water depth for a barge, that compels you to load for soybeans 5,000 fewer bushels of soybeans per barge, and a typical barge can easily accommodate 50,000 bushels of soybeans. So, you’re looking at about a ten percent reduction in the freight capacity of a barge just due to one foot of less water. And, we’re already seeing in certain stretches of the river a reduction of two feet or greater than what normally would occur, so it’s very concerning.”
Not only do the rivers get shallower, but they also are much narrower than usual, further squeezing the number of barges getting through.
“Then, number two is channel width. With less water in the river, it narrows the shipping channel. So then, normally from St Louis and south, you can put 30 barges 35, even 40 barges together to move as one single unit down to those export terminals near New Orleans. Well, now there’s a maximum limit of 25 barges, so it impacts the economics of moving freight via barge, and that’s one of the things that makes barge transportation so compelling, is the ability to move a lot of product long distances economically. And that performance has diminished lately, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.”
He says it’s been a while since the industry dealt with water levels this low.
“The industry talks about 1988: Not seeing such low conditions since then, and I think it’s safe to say this is quite historic. It has been building for many months. We haven’t received as much precipitation during the course of the spring or summer as we normally do, but it even extended beyond that. We were noticing lower snowfall amounts in the Missouri River area. And, as many of us know, the water that we see on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis originated as a snowflake in a place like Montana, and so much of that snow melt does filter into the Missouri River Basin, eventually connecting with the Mississippi River at St. Louis, so we saw that materializing even this past winter.”