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Barges long gone, goods moving on Yazoo River decline

GREENWOOD — During the heyday of Greenwood’s cotton markets, paddle-wheel boats carried bales of cotton and other export commodities down the Yazoo River to Vicksburg and on to New Orleans.

It’s now been decades since barges worked the upper reaches of the Yazoo River to pick up shipments from Greenwood. Moving grain, fertilizer or other products by boat could dramatically cut shipping costs, operators say — but changes on the Yazoo River make operating as far up as Greenwood a difficult proposition.

A lack of regular maintenance on the waterways and frequently low water levels have made bringing barges up the Yazoo River challenging except during very brief windows. Barges haven’t regularly shipped goods out of Greenwood since the early 1990s.

“It’s only navigable up there during periods of high water,” said Greg Raimondo, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Vicksburg District. “Every once in a while in Belzoni, you can see some barges (on the Yazoo), but there’s not a lot of commercial navigation on that river.”

Patrick Smith, the president of Yazoo River Towing Company, regularly moves barges between Yazoo City and Vicksburg. He said that traffic on the river has been declining for decades and that regular barge traffic had ceased well before he became active with the company.

“In my father’s era, we moved a considerable amount of tonnage off that river over the years with the operators in Belzoni and Yazoo City — along with occasional runs up to Greenwood,” Smith said. “As the river has gone unmaintained over these years, our business in Belzoni has diminished to almost nonexistent; Greenwood has stopped altogether.”

The declining volume of goods moving on the Yazoo River has meant federal officials have set aside scant funds maintenance of the waterways, Smith said. Funds for dredging are allocated based on total tonnage, meaning that rivers with little traffic get almost no attention from the Corps of Engineers.

That policy has led to a self-reinforcing loop on the Yazoo River, where poor maintenance makes the river increasingly tough to navigate — ensuring that traffic drops further.

“The problem with a river is that when the tonnage declines, then the allocation funds decline for that river,” Smith said. “The problem is it becomes a downward spiral where it’s hard to get the dredging funds because you can’t get the tonnage on the river because the river isn’t deep enough to run.”

Today, the Corps of Engineers receives only about $20,000 to maintain the waterways on the Yazoo River, Raimondo said. That kind of cash won’t begin to cover the cost of snagging obstructions or dredging the channel.

“Mostly what we can do with that is just do hydrographic surveys of it,” Raimondo said.

“What’s happening with the Yazoo River is it’s no longer maintained other than for drainage purposes,”?Smith said.

Obstructions and unmaintained navigation channels have left barge operators like Smith increasingly at the mercy of unpredictable water levels to move goods by boat. That’s made scheduling any kind of regular shipments precarious at best and discouraged businesses in the Greenwood area from building terminals on the river.

“We’re forced to only utilize the river when the water levels permit,” Smith said. “It’s almost never year-round, which becomes the problem for large organizations because they can’t budget their shipping patterns. We never know when the river is going to be navigable.”

John Coleman, the president of Express Grain Terminals in Greenwood, looked into possibly shipping corn, wheat, soybeans and other export commodities down the Yazoo River to Vicksburg in 2013 but found the obstacles too high to make it worth the investment.

Light traffic meant that shipping rates — normally significantly cheaper by barge than by track or rail — were surprisingly high, and varying water levels made building a terminal a risky proposition.

“We could truck it to Greenville and be at the river for about the same price we could barge down to Vicksburg, and we wouldn’t have to install any infrastructure to do that,”?Coleman said. “To put that much money into something that may or may not work — it’s a hard thing to do.”

Raimondo said there hasn’t been any maintenance on the Yazoo’s navigational channel since federal stimulus money allowed the Corps of Engineers to snag downed trees in 2009. To keep water levels on the Yazoo River high enough for barges throughout the year, Raimondo said, massive investment would be needed — and it would almost certainly require the construction of a lock and dam near the Vicksburg harbor.

That project was approved by Congress in 1968, but the money to actually build the dam never materialized, Raimondo said. Today, the costs involved would likely be prohibitive.

“It’d be a huge infrastructure project,” Raimondo said. “I couldn’t even estimate how much it’d cost these days.”

Even without a massive project to ensure water levels, consistent maintenance on the Yazoo would make shipping on the river much more practical and reliable, Smith said. Regular snagging and dredging “would, without a doubt, increase our ability to run that river at least two to three months out of the year”?— something that Smith estimated would let his company move roughly 50,000 additional tons of freight.

“Dredging would make that river far more predictable,” Smith said, “which would make life easier on the companies that might depend on it to move products.”

Allan Hammons, a Greenwood advertising executive who serves on the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation, said the remarkable efficiency of barge shipping — which is usually several times less expensive than moving bulk freight by train — would make a river port in Greenwood an attractive piece of infrastructure for area businesses.

“It would be great if we had that capacity, and from time to time we have industrial prospects that are looking for it,” Hammons said.

With the Corps of Engineers’ budget stretched by other demands, contentious battles in Congress over appropriations and virtually no commercial river traffic around Greenwood, it’s unlikely the onetime cotton capital will have a buzzing port anytime soon.

 

— BRYN STOLE, The Greenwood Commonwealth

 

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