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Corps' closing of river could impact grain exports

Drought River ShippingMISSISSIPPI DELTA — Closing the Mississippi River to reinforce part of the bank at the height of a record harvest season could do serious damage to grain exports, says the Waterways Council Inc., a trade group for barge shipping.

The Army Corps of Engineers is closing a three-mile stretch between Memphis and Greenville during the day to reinforce a washed-out area of river bank with concrete mats called revetments.

Friday, the first day of revetment work, cost the industry more than $450,000, according to John Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council. He said in a phone interview from Washington that the day’s work delayed 32 tugs and their tows of up to 48 barges. He had the estimated cost for 27 of them — those for which he knew the tow size.

“A barge’s daily rate is $750 and a towboat is $500 an hour,” he said. “For those vessels I know about, we have an estimated cost of $454,383” for the first of what is expected to be 14 days.

And with bad weather closing in on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries, companies need to shuttle barges back and forth as quickly as possible, he said.

The revetments are needed to ensure that high water won’t erode the levees themselves, and it must be done while the river is low — and before the start of winter storms and ice — if it’s to be finished before flood season, Corps spokesman Bob Anderson said yesterday.

The area, at a big curve where the river scoured out the bank during the 2011 floods, is 56 miles north of Greenville, Anderson said. That puts it about roughly halfway between Memphis and the Louisiana state line.

The Corps agreed to put off other work in the same area until Dec. 30 but did not delay the mat-laying.

“The river stage is 3 feet at Memphis. The Corps told us yesterday that they can work up to 15 feet,” Toohey said. “They’re not at any expectation of high water.”

He said tows of grain-filled barges are moving downriver and salt and other commodities are moving upriver.

Barge traffic upriver is allowed during the day, since the tows are more controllable in that direction, Anderson said Saturday morning.

However, Toohey said, a test with a small string of 24 barges showed that nothing larger should go through while the channel was restricted.

The usable channel is narrower than usual because the mats can extend up to 400 feet into the river itself, Anderson said.

At night, the southbound barges go through first. The current pushing them along makes them harder to steer, so they get priority. It’s “like a railroad train going by, except instead of train cars you have towboats all going down at one time,” Toohey said.

Anderson said work will be delayed each morning until any waiting barges are through.

It took until 8 a.m. Saturday, about two hours after the scheduled start of work, for all of the boats delayed Friday to get through, he said.

Anderson said that if later queues take longer to clear, the Corps may extend the number of days or make some other modification.

Toohey said 20 were waiting at dusk Friday and another 12 were added to the backup overnight.

The Coast Guard said 22 boats were waiting to go through at 4:30 p.m. Saturday — 15 heading downriver, seven upriver.

 

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