Commerce is moving on the state’s two main navigable waterways, the Mississippi River and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. For both, water levels remain normal for this time of year and there are no effects from the drought being experienced in some parts of the state.
“Everything is moving on the river and we’ve followed a long trend of water level,” said Larry Banks with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Watershed Division in Vicksburg. “The river is about 20 feet at Vicksburg now and 22 feet is normal for July.”
He said river traffic is moving and that’s attributed to the work the corps did with dikes and bank protection to keep the river deep when the water level starts falling and to keep the banks from falling in. The normal cycle is that the water level will go down later in the year, but extreme low water is not expected.
Keeping it moving
“It’s dry on the eastern side of the Corn Belt, but the other side is very wet,” Banks said. “The local drought in Jackson doesn’t affect us on the river. Our water comes from the Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas and upper Mississippi rivers. We get most of our flood water out of the Ohio.”
With 37 years of service in the corps, Banks has had plenty of time to observe the river’s ebb and flow. When the water gets low, the corps coordinates with businesses and the National Weather Service.
“We use the guys out there with tow boats because they’re out there every day and know the river. They will warn us about the depth,” he said. “It’s a cooperative effort to keep it moving.”
Barge traffic is good on the river at this time of year but the busiest time will come in the fall when large shipments of corn and soybeans are transported. Lots of coal and petroleum products move along the river, too.
“Harvest time is the busiest time, but river traffic is consistent all year,” Banks said. “Each barge is equivalent to 55 truck loads of goods.”
After 30 years with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Columbus, Don Waldon retired as administrator and is now serving as a consultant.
“I wouldn’t be so bold to say the waterway is drought proof, but even in 1988 when no commercial traffic could pass on the lower Mississippi River, the Tenn-Tom was the only water route open in mid-America,” he said. “It was the only way for companies to receive materials by barge.”
The waterway remains open because it’s a regulated system with a series of lakes controlled by 10 locks that overcome the 341-foot difference in slopes. It also connects into the Tennessee River, an interconnected system, which has large reservoirs sending 50 million gallons of water into the Tenn-Tom routinely.
“The big difference between the Mississippi River and the Tenn-Tom is that the Tenn-Tom is a regulated system with a series of locks and reservoirs; it has no natural flow,” Waldon said. “The waterway must be dredged each year.”
The challenge every year is making sure the Corps of Engineers has sufficient money — approximately $25 million — to maintain and operate the waterway. Waldon said Congress supports and adequately funds the waterway.
“I don’t see any problems with funding. The Tenn-Tom is used for recreational and commercial transport, mostly commercial,” he said. “The health of the waterway is very good, and a large volume of goods is moved through it. Large shipments are increasing.”
With a savings of $90 million each year in transportation costs, $1.2 billion ton miles of commerce move along the waterway. Still, it’s only operating at one third of its capacity.
Room to grow
“As impressive as those figures are, we still have room to grow,” Waldon said. “No question, the Tenn-Tom has economic value for the state. It helps keep more jobs in Mississippi and improves the overall quality of products produced here.”
Stating that the waterway was built as a long-term investment, he said it has helped Mississippi and Alabama compete for big steel mills. Barge transportation benefits heavy manufacturing and other capital-intensive industries by lowering delivery expenses for raw materials and reducing costs for shipping goods and products. In some cases, large pieces of equipment can only move by water. An example is the pollution control equipment made at the PSP/Monotech plants in Fulton and Iuka.
Recently, a piece of a nuclear turbine made in Korea came into the Port of Houston, then traveled along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway before heading up the Tenn-Tom on its way to Kansas.
“That was a heavy, expensive piece of equipment and shows the importance of the Tenn-Tom,” Waldon said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.