In more normal years, Port of Greenville director Tommy Hart would have paid little attention to the Army Corps of Engineer’s slowdown of water from the Missouri River at its junction with the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.
But like the year before, 2012 has not been a normal one on the Mississippi. Given today’s circumstances, Hart is providing no guarantees commercial shipping in his area of the river will be occurring in the near future.
Unlike 2011, when spring snow thaws in the Ohio River Valley caused historic levels of flooding in the lower Mississippi, this year historic drought conditions have forced slowdowns or total halts to barge traffic unable to gain adequate drafts on the river above and below Greenville.
The water side of Greenville’s transshipment operations had shutdown periods in August and early September and is close to another one — or at least a significant slowdown in water traffic, Hart said on the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday.
He said forecasts show water levels dropping to 7 feet in coming days. “Quite frankly, that is the point where we would have to curtail whatever we’re doing or change our methods,” Hart said, referring to putting cargo that would normally go by barge on rail and trucks.
“We can operate reasonably well at the 8 ½ feet level in Greenville but after we get below that we have a draft problem. Most of our harbor boats have a 9-foot draft.”
The Corps’ impounding of water from the Missouri adds another element of uncertainty to the port chief’s workday. “Traditionally, they discharge that and maintain a little higher level on the lower part of the river,” he said.
Shippers in St. Louis are preparing for the worst and fear delays in shipping $7 billion in commodities in December and January, USA Today reported in its Nov. 23-25 issue. The newspaper reported Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon predicting an economic crisis.
Hart said Greenville lost about $500,000 in barge business in August and September, a significant blow to an operation whose yearly revenues come to about $2 million.
Further erosion is expected on the revenue side with the forecast for lower water levels. Freight will have to be diverted to rail and truck, according to Hart.
“If we continue navigation at all, it will be light loading” for 8-foot depth rather than the customary 11 feet, he said. “That increases transportation costs dramatically. One way or another, we have to keep going. We’ll divert to other modes of transportation — truck and rail.”
A lot of the scrap steel the port typically sends by barge has been put on rail in recent weeks.
Even grain, a mainstay of the port’s freight business, has had to be diverted to rail and truck in some instances, Hart said.
And that is without the newly expected drop in water levels, he noted. “The picture does not look bright right now.”
A reversal of fortunes could come, though, with significant rainfall in the Ohio Valley in the next 30 days. But Hart said he has had no reports that sustained rains are ahead for the Ohio Valley.
Without the rains and with the impoundment of water from the Missouri, “It will just be real close,” in predicting whether the Port of Greenville stays open, he added.
If a shutdown occurs, the length will hinge on new rainfall, according to Hart.
The publicly-run port, which serves mainly as a trans-loading center, has 15 employees. Its terminals include two large facilities for grain shipments, two agricultural chemical terminals, a sand and gravel terminal, four fuel terminals and a propane terminal.
Meanwhile, Mississippi U.S. senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have joined their counterparts from other states along the Mississippi in reminding the Corps of Engineers that impounding the water from the Missouri River could keep the Mississippi from maintaining its congressionally authorized channel depth of 9 feet. “This will lead to a crisis on the Mississippi River when commerce is interrupted due to low water conditions,” the senators say.
The senators say they want the impoundment delayed until a formation of rocks can be removed from the Mississippi River at Thebus, Ill., “in order to avert the looming crisis.” The rocks jut up, potentially scraping the bottoms of barges when water levels are low. Their removal is not expected until February.
The Corps has rejected the request for the impoundment delay. It began reducing the outflow from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., on Nov. 23, according to The Associated Press.
Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer told The Associated Press that the reduction started at 37,500 cubic feet per second and had been cut to 35,500 cubic feet per second.
Farmer said plans call for a gradual reduction down to 12,000 cubic feet per second by Dec. 11 because of the drought.