Cash Market Moves

Falling Mississippi and Ohio River Levels Hampering Barge Traffic Again

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
Connect with Mary:
Water levels on the Mississippi River at Memphis and on the Ohio River at Cairo have been on a steady fall due to lack of rain and extreme heat, causing concern that there will be a repeat of the poor conditions that wreaked havoc on the rivers last fall. (NOAA Graphic)

Here we go again! River levels on the Lower Mississippi continue to fall, causing issues at loading facilities on the rivers as harvest is underway. Farmers who rely on river terminals to haul their new-crop corn and soybeans are facing lower basis levels because of the loadout issues and higher barge freight.

"Docks in lakes/slips are already struggling to get to requested draft and some may get shut out in the next few weeks. Most have cut drafts to 9'6" Cairo south already and anyone else will likely follow by Monday. There have been groundings on the Illinois River, Lower Ohio (LOHR), Lower Mississippi (LMR) and river closures at Mile Marker 925 LMR and 969-975 on the LOHR. The groundings/closures/draft cuts/reduced tow sizes pushed barge freight offers higher Friday by 25-50%," said Ceres Consulting, LLC on Sept. 8.

At MM 967 to 975 on the Ohio River, the channel was closed for dredging until Monday, Sept. 11, due to industry groundings in the area. There will be significant delays to transit until that channel is opened, according to American Commercial Barge Lines (ACBL).

ACBL said on Friday, Sept. 8, in their daily river conditions report, "Dredge Hurley is expected to begin work Saturday, Sept. 9, at LMR MM 928 with two 24-hour closures starting at 06:00 and completion Tuesday morning. Dredge Jadwin completed the work at Cumbyville LMR MM 545 and is repositioned with planned rolling 24-hr closures. Once this project is complete, the dredge will reposition to Lakeport LMR MM 527. Expect delays of 24 to 36 hours."

Executive Director Soy Transportation Coalition Mike Steenhoek, told DTN, "As we increasingly proceed into harvest season and our predominant period for U.S. exports for soybeans, it is concerning that our inland waterway system is not operating from a position of strength. It was hopeful that 2023 would not present a sequel to the historically low water levels on the Mississippi River in 2022, but unfortunately that clearly is occurring. Harvest and the concomitant export season is 'game time' for farmers and the entire agricultural industry. During this period, we need our supply chain, including the Mississippi River, to be operating at full capacity. The current low water conditions are therefore clearly a cause for concern."

Steenhoek added, "Unfortunately, the forecast for additional precipitation in the near future is not favorable. Moreover, any future rainfall that does occur will be largely absorbed by an increasingly dehydrated farm ground. Abundant and sustained rainfall will need to occur to change the water level trajectory along the inland waterway system."

DTN Meteorologist John Baranick notes in his Sept. 6 weather blog, "A return of the ridge and heat is being forecast by most models for late September going into early October. It is the rollercoaster of conditions that we would normally associate with periods of good rainfall, but that has not come to fruition for more than a few lucky areas so far.…

"The foremost question is will we revisit September to December 2022 low water conditions and barge freight spikes. Although current gauge readings are at similar levels to those of last year, there is reason to believe the same prolonged low water occurrence will not happen this year," said Jonathan Hobbs, Russell Marine Group. "That optimism henges squarely on precipitation returning to the Midwest and Ohio River Valley by the end of September."

The Sept. 7 U.S Drought Monitor paints a picture of why the U.S. River system is in rough shape right now.…

Mississippi River at Memphis hydrograph:…

Ohio River at Cairo hydrograph:…

Mississippi River at St. Louis hydrograph:…

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @MaryCKenn