The only place where frozen bodies of water are a good thing this time of year is in the Upper Midwest where many of us Northerners enjoy the winter ritual of ice fishing. Icing on the U.S. river system, however, is not a welcome sight, as it causes delays and dangerous conditions for tows pushing barges trying to move commodities downriver to the Gulf of Mexico for export.
The severe cold spell that gripped most of the country the past week caused the Illinois River to ice over. On Jan. 5, Tom Russell, of Russell Marine Group, told me that barge traffic on the Illinois River is all but stopped due to ice. "A couple of barge lines are still trying to move without much success. As traffic stops, the ice gorges get worse without movement to break and push the ice along."
American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) noted in its daily river update that, "Operations have ceased due to heavy ice throughout the river. Boats are moving to find the closest safe harbor until conditions improve. Based on the 10-day forecast, conditions will continue to deteriorate."
ACBL also noted that on the Upper Ohio River, there was minimal movement due to ice above Montgomery Lock. On top of that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) closed Lock 52 on the lower Ohio to raise the wickets, noting they believe this process will take around four days. The river is expected to open Sunday or Monday. According to the USACE, during low water, "the gates must be raised individually to impound water, creating a navigable depth from Locks and Dam 52 to Smithland Locks and Dam, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley."
Russell also said, "Locks on the Upper Mississippi just above St. Louis are icing, causing locking delays. Tow size restrictions have been implemented for tows locking through. The Upper Mississippi River from St. Louis to Cairo is seeing ice flows along the corridor. Also, that stretch of river is experiencing low water levels. Boat traffic is moving very slowly due to ice and low water.
"A tow has gone aground at mile 47 (north of Thebes, Illinois) whereby only limited traffic can pass until refloated," added Russell. "Water levels from St. Louis to Cairo are expected to continue to drop over the next couple weeks. Further restrictions may have to be implemented."
Because of the icing and low water conditions along most of the U.S. river system, barge freight rose mid-week, and soybean and corn basis was higher at the Gulf, as loaded barges have been unable to get there on time. According to the USDA weekly transportation report, "With the cold temperatures and icy conditions, grain barge rates, as of Jan. 2, rose 15% for export grain on the Illinois River and 9% on the Mississippi River at St. Louis compared to the prior week."
Even if the ice conditions improve, which may take some time, the low water levels will exist until the river system can refresh. On Jan. 5, the Mississippi River at St. Louis was 1.73 feet below zero gauge and was not expected to rise above minus 1.3 feet before Jan. 18 and maybe later. At Memphis, the Mississippi River is currently at 4.86 feet on Jan. 5, but expectations from the National Weather Service (NWS) are that without any moisture in the next week, levels will fall to 1.5 feet below zero gauge by Jan. 18.
While barge traffic is normally lighter now than it is during the summer and fall months, there are still commodities that need to get to the Gulf on time for existing contracts to be filled. Low-water conditions can cause barge drafts to be lightened, meaning less product can be loaded and possibly reduce the number of barges a tow can move. The danger of low water is grounding, as noted above, and when that happens, the grounded barges need to be safely removed before traffic can move forward.
On top of the icing currently affecting river traffic, low-water conditions only exacerbate the issues for elevators trying to load out and barge lines trying to get empty barges upriver and full barges down to the Gulf.
Mary Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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