Dry weather threatening to strictly curtail navigation on the Mississippi River has been the dominant story in 2012.
As 2012 closes, low water levels on the Mississippi River have organizations representing barge shippers urging the federal government to declare an emergency, as a long-lasting drought is preventing river traffic from flowing on the critical stretch from St. Louis to New Orleans.
On Nov. 27, 2012, a consortium of 18 business organizations sent and made public a letter to President Obama and six other federal officials with a “request for presidential Declaration of Emergency under Section 501(b) of the Stafford Act.”
The 18 organizations listed include those representing commodities commonly shipped by barge as well as the American Waterways Operators (AWO), the Waterways Council Inc., the National Waterways Conference and the National Industrial Transportation League. All four shipping groups are based in Arlington, Va.
In addition to pointing out that navigation on the middle Mississippi is becoming impossible for larger vessels, the groups ask for two specific actions: “We respectfully request that the President immediately declare an emergency and direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to immediately remove the rock pinnacles near Grand Tower and Thebes, Ill., and in the meantime release such water from the Missouri River reservoirs as is necessary to preserve a nine-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi River to sustain commercial navigation.”
In their open letter to the federal government, the 18 business groups spell out how Mississippi River conditions have deteriorated heading into December: “The crisis was created by this year’s near historic drought conditions and will come to a head now that the USACE has begun to implement plans to reduce the release of water to the Mississippi River from dams on the upper Missouri River.”
The 18 organizations—which combined represent a sizable business constituency (Visit www.WaterwaysTodayOnline.com/1212-significant-clout.aspx for an online sidebar “Significant Clout.”)—use strong language when portraying the importance of the federal government’s need to take action. In the opening sentence, the letter says to President Obama, five FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) administrators and the Secretary of the Army that their “immediate assistance in averting an economic catastrophe” is being requested.
After asking President Obama to declare an emergency and take the actions necessary to maintain a 9-foot navigation channel in the river, the letter’s authors spell out the important role commercial traffic on the Mississippi River plays in the U.S. economy.
“The Mississippi River is a critical national transportation artery, on which hundreds of millions of tons of essential commodities are shipped, such as corn, grain and oilseeds, coal, petroleum, chemicals, agricultural inputs, steel, scrap materials transported for recycling, and other products,” the letter states. “In total, cargo valued at $7 billion—including some 300 million bushels of agricultural products and 3.8 million tons of coal—could be delayed in reaching its intended markets, with damaging consequences for shippers, consumers, and the regional and national economy.”
The crucial energy-saving aspects of barge shipping are also spelled out by the letter’s co-authors. “It is estimated that 5 million barrels of domestically produced crude oil will need to be replaced by imported crude oil at a cost of $545 million in additional imports.”
And the business groups did not send their letter alone. “The urgent need to avert this impending economic disaster has been widely recognized by federal and state policymakers,” the letter states. “Attached please find letters signed by the governors of Missouri, Illinois and Iowa, 15 U.S. senators, and 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urging prompt federal action to prevent an unprecedented curtailment of Mississippi River navigation.”
As of Nov. 29, 2012, the Obama administration and FEMA have not issued a response to the request. Companies dependent on barge shipping, such as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and American Electric Power (AEP), have indicated that they are already seeking transportation alternatives in anticipation of an inability to use the middle Mississippi River by mid-December.
In song, the Mississippi is hailed as “Old Man River” that just keeps flowing. Throughout 2012, the river has certainly kept flowing, but with increasingly lower water volumes as the year has progressed.
The University of Missouri Climate Center says of July 2012 “unrelenting dryness and extreme heat persisted through [the month]. The average statewide temperature for the month was 83.7 degrees, or 6.4 degrees above normal.” The Climate Center adds, “July rainfall was paltry for the state, with a statewide average total of 1.67 inches, or 2.57 inches below normal for the month. It was the ninth driest July on record and the driest July since 1970.”
Regarding projected crop yields in Missouri, “By the end of July, corn, soybean and pastures were reported to be in 83 percent, 72 percent and 98 percent poor to very poor condition, respectively,” according to the Climate Center.
By August of 2012, after a dry late spring and early summer, the USACE was engaged in dredging operations designed to keep the Mississippi River open to commercial traffic.
“Working around the clock, five dredges directed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are battling extreme low-water conditions along the Mississippi River to keep commercial navigation moving on America’s super highway,” the USACE says in an Aug. 7, 2012, press release.
By that time, the effects of the drought and the potential worsening of conditions were becoming apparent.
“Unless additional rainfall occurs, the latest long-range forecast calls for river conditions to continue to fall through the end of August, with new low-water records possible at several key navigation points along the lower Mississippi between Cairo, Ill., and Baton Rouge.”
An added drought-related concern for inland waterways shippers in 2012 was the status of corn and soybean harvests throughout the Midwest.
Although rainfall remained below-normal for most the Midwest throughout 2012, and yields were not as high as in 2011, many observers were pleasantly surprised by the amount of grain harvested and shipped in September and October of 2012.
In early November, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted that the total U.S. corn harvest in 2012 would be 10.7 billion bushels, up from forecasts being made during the mid-summer drought but still down 13 percent from the 2011 harvest. The drought of 2012 has affected commercial shipping beyond the Mississippi River.
An Associated Press (AP) news report from late November indicates, “water levels have fallen to near-record lows on Lakes Michigan and Huron, while Erie, Ontario and Superior are below their historical averages.”
AP reporter John Flesher adds, “The decline is causing heavy economic losses, with cargo freighters forced to lighten their loads, marinas too shallow for pleasure boats and weeds sprouting on exposed bottomlands.”
According to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association (LCA), however, lake traffic as measured by iron ore shipments was holding steady.
“Through October  the iron ore trade stands at 50 million tons, an increase of 2.5 percent compared to a year ago, and 14.6 percent better than the five-year average for the January-October timeframe,” the LCA stated in a late November news release.
Coal shipments on the Great Lakes have shown a downward trend in 2012, though this could be more of a reflection of coal losing favor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and losing market share in the eastern United States to abundant and affordable natural gas. “Year-to-date the Lakes coal trade stands at 20.2 million tons, a decrease of 8.5 percent compared to a year ago, but loadings are nearly 26 percent behind the five-year average for the January-October timeframe,” according to the LCA.
Heading into 2012, inland waterways shippers have plenty of items on their “to do” and “wish” lists. As in the letter from the 18 business organizations to President Obama, some of these requests involve federal government intervention and spending—and may require urgent action.
Organizations such as the Gulf Intracoastal Association (GIA) are likely to continue to ask that fees and taxes be collected with the intention of being earmarked for commercial waterways spending be used that way. (See the Perspective, “Upgrading Our Marine Highways,” on p. 6 of the May/June 2012 issue of Waterways Today.)
One of the priorities, however, concerns the phenomenon about which Mark Twain observed that everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about—the weather.
In a late November news story, Bloomberg News writer Alan Bjerga, citing Minnesota hydrologist Steve Buan, states, “December and January are historically the lowest times of year for the [Mississippi river system] because the fall season is usually dry and tributaries freeze.”
As of Nov. 21, the USDA also had little good cheer to offer. An AP news article summarizing the USDA “Drought Monitor” report notes “virtually all of Nebraska is in a deep drought, with more than three-fourths in the worst stage. But Nebraska, along with the Dakotas to the north, could still see things get worse in the near future,” with little rain forecast in the Midwest in the near term.
Commercial shippers all along the inland waterways system are likely to pay close attention to what types of clouds are forming in late 2012 and early 2013 and will be among those smiling on rainy and snowy days.
The author is editorial director of Waterways Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.