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Heavy Rains, Snow Wreak Havoc on River System

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Heavy rains and melting snow from a massive winter storm this week are causing extensive flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. (Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)

The year is ending with a bang weather-wise as heavy rains and snow over the past week are causing extensive flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, creating a real headache for the nation's river transportation system. The massive flooding, which usually occurs in spring, is plaguing the entire U.S. river system this winter.

"The weekend after Christmas was indeed a washout in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys," said DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. "Rainfall of from 5 to 10 inches inundated much of Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana, with some local totals exceeding 12 inches. Many, many rainfall records were broken."

That heavy precipitation has pushed the nation's main river system above flood stage, creating a mess for shippers. As of Dec. 30, the St. Louis Harbor was closed, according to reports, as water levels reached 41.07 feet, 1 foot above major flood stage. The harbor will not reopen until levels reach 38 feet. The Mississippi River at St. Louis is forecast to crest at 43.1 to 44.7 feet on Thursday, Dec. 31, which would represent the second-highest crest on record. The flooding comes as St. Louis has just experienced its wettest December on record.

Farther south, the National Weather Service forecasts the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to rise above flood stage by the afternoon of Jan. 4 and continue to rise to near 44.0 feet around mid-January.

Tom Russell of Russell Marine Group told DTN, "Lower Mississippi River from Cairo to New Orleans is open but either at or will soon be at flood levels as water flushes through. Expect continued slow going logistics throughout the system. Fleets in St. Louis and Cairo are at max capacity. Tow sizes will be restricted to equivalent of 280 horsepower per barge to tow ratio. This is the first time I have seen such hp restriction."

Here is what the rest of the river system looks like as reported on the Ingram Marine Group website on Dec. 30:

Allegheny River:

-- High water operating conditions. River is closed above Lock 5 (mile 30.4) due to high flows.

Ohio River:

-- High water operating conditions, smaller tows, daylight only transits, slower transit times.

Cumberland River:

-- High water operating conditions. River is closed in Nashville due to a railroad bridge failure and also at the Clarksville Bridge due to clearance issues.

Tennessee River:

-- High water operating conditions, navigation above New Johnsonville has ceased, river closed.

Upper Mississippi River:

-- High water operating conditions

Louisiana: 20.9 feet, falling. River is closed due to high water at the Louisiana RR bridge.

-- Mile 201.5 Mel Price Lock auxiliary chamber is closed due to high water levels.

-- Mile 185.5 Lock 27 main chamber is closed as of Dec. 28 due to high water. No estimate for reopening. River closure.

- Cape Girardeau: 45 feet, rising.

Illinois River:

-- High water operating conditions, navigation has essentially stopped

Lower Mississippi River:

-- High water operating conditions, reduced tow sizes, daylight only transits at Vicksburg and slower overall transit times.

-- Memphis: 28.3 feet, rising.

-- Vicksburg: 38.2 feet, rising.

Arkansas River:

-- River is closed due to high water operating conditions.

-- Mile 319.6 Webbers Falls lock is closed to navigation due to high flows, river is closed.


In recent weeks, exports have been slow out of the Gulf of Mexico, barge freight has been cheap and many terminals had stopped buying barges for the rest of December. River basis has been in a lull for much of the last half of December. Because of the river closures, rail basis to the Gulf may move higher in order to get contracted corn, soybeans or wheat to waiting vessels.

As far as river basis, until the high water recedes and conditions improve, there likely won't be much of an improvement. River terminals can't even get barges under spouts in high water to load grain. And anything currently loaded or empty is either moving at a slow crawl or likely tied off due to river closures. If they can't load it, they certainly don't want to buy it.

On Dec. 29, Ceres Barge line said, "Most elevators are either shut down or will be shut down by Thursday on the Illinois River. All St. Louis elevators are closed. Over half of Ohio shippers are flooded out and many on the MTCT (Memphis Through Cairo Terms) are getting ready to go down."

As for land movement, flooded roads and heavy snow will likely slow any grain moving from the farm, but farmers have not been selling much due to low prices. Processing plants and ethanol plants that are relying on trucks getting to them may have to push basis some if they need product right now, which has been slow to come due to poor road conditions.


Anderson said over the next week, high pressure is indicated to settle over the Midwest and bring drier conditions. "This should allow for some receding of floodwaters. We're looking for generally above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation during the first week of the new year 2016."

For current information on river levels, visit the NWS River Stages page in Ag News on DTN. Or go to…

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Mary Kennedy
1/3/2016 | 2:50 PM CST
Update from USACE St. Louis District: River Stages as of Jan. 3 are lower and have the current depths: Louisiana, 16.9 feet; Grafton, 28.6; St. Louis, 38.7; Cape, 48.0. For more info: USACE Memphis District: Based on readings as of Jan. 3, Ohio River was near-crest at 56 feet on Cairo gage. Stages should stay steady next two-to-three days, then fall slowly. The NWS forecast on Jan. 3 said the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge will rise above flood stage by the afternoon of Jan. 4 and continue to rise to near 44 feet around mid-January. Union Pacific RR currently has or anticipates outages on several key routes south and west of St. Louis.