Cash Market Moves

2016 Transportation Review: US River System

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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A tow pushes barges on the Mississippi River in mid-October 2016, heading to the Gulf through the St. Paul Minnesota District. (DTN photo by Mary Kennedy)

Part two of this two-part column looks at the performance of commodity movement via barge on the U.S. waterways and challenges faced throughout the year.


The start to 2016 was disastrous for the entire river system, as heavy rains and melting snow from a massive winter storm in late December 2015 caused extensive flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The flooding plagued the entire U.S. river system for nearly the first 4 1/2 months of the year.

By mid-January 2016, the glut of water from heavy rains and melting snow that caused extensive flooding along the Mississippi River in Missouri and southern Illinois made its way farther south toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The flooding caused delays, stoppages and slowdowns in New Orleans, wreaking havoc on the shipping industry in the Gulf. The high water from Vicksburg to New Orleans caused numerous navigation accidents and river closures, causing tow boats to be delayed making deliveries into New Orleans Port. As a consequence, tow boats got out of sync and stacked up on the southern part of the Lower Mississippi River.

In mid-February 2016, Tom Russell of Russell Marine Group told me, "Logistics on the river were still working through the wicked hangover left behind from the flooding."

For much of March, Russell told me that the Southwest Pass in southeastern Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River, still had draft restrictions in place for ocean vessels. "The continuous massive flow of water deposits a lot of sand/silt right where Mother Nature intended, at the mouth of the river." Draft sizes were raised from the norm of 45 feet to 41 to 43 feet until dredges were able to clear the areas that were affected.

As April approached, the river closed for eight days at Mile 30 to 44 in the Upper Mississippi after a 30-barge southbound tow collided with the Thebes Bridge, located just above Cairo, sinking two barges. In mid-May, rains in the Central Plains states and into the Midwest pushed some river levels up once again. "Safety protocols were in place for parts of the Illinois River, and the Lower Mississippi experienced a slight rise again to warrant some safety protocols put in place for the southern portion," said Russell.

By the end of June, Russell reported that rivers were in good shape and for the first time since November 2015, river levels in New Orleans had fallen below 10 feet above zero gauge.


In the northern tier of the Upper Mississippi River (UMR), the 2016 shipping season opened March 13 and ended Dec. 2. The northern section of the UMR starts in St. Paul, Minnesota, and runs downriver through Guttenberg, Iowa. The St. Paul District maintains a 9-foot navigation channel from Minneapolis to Guttenberg, Iowa. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) St. Paul District said in its 2016 shipping report that "keeping this system open is vital to the nation's economy."

Even with a shorter season than the rest of the river system, 2016 was a strong year for the UMR. The USACE reported that "Lock and Dam 10, near Guttenberg, Iowa, was above the 10-year average for combined lockages. The lockages supported 18,908,851 tons of commodities by the navigation industry. This is the highest amount since 2002. During the 2015 season, Corps staff supported 2,088 commercial lockages and the movement of 14,338,740 tons of commodities."

The USDA weekly Grain Transportation report said that as of week 51 (Dec. 24), total grain barge tonnages in 2016 reached 42.4 million tons, 20% higher than last year's annual total. "Furthermore, with one week remaining in the year, the year-to-date cumulative total grain tonnage moved during 2016 is already the highest since 2003, when the annual tons were 42.5 million tons."

In 2015 during the fourth quarter, there was only one week when the weekly tonnages exceeded 1 million tons. In comparison, during the fourth quarter of 2016, there were seven times when the weekly tonnage exceeded 1 million tons, according to USDA. "In addition, there were six weeks during July and August when the weekly tonnages exceeded 1 million tons."


The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 was officially signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16, 2016. The law authorizes the USACE to address the needs of America's harbors, locks, dams, flood protection and other water resources infrastructure critical to the nation's economic competiveness.

The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest in the world, extending from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. The watershed includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian Provinces. The watershed measures approximately 1.2 million square miles, covering about 40% of the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. National Park Service. As the river makes its 2,350-mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico, it is joined by hundreds of tributaries, including the Ohio and Missouri Rivers.

As the aging 28 locks and dams continue to deteriorate, especially when damaged by floods, the USACE has to make costly repairs and, in some cases, put a Band-Aid on the damaged locks. The USACE has said that it is "unable to adequately fund maintenance activities to ensure the navigation system operates at an acceptable level of performance."

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), said in an email to DTN, "The future of the U.S. Waterways depends on better funding from the government before it's too late to repair the aging locks and dams."

"Great nations, as well as great industries, continue to invest in themselves," said Steenhoek. "Investing in infrastructure should not be an isolated incident. It needs to be perpetual." Following is a link to the STC analysis, "Farm to Market: A Soybean's Journey." The attached summary highlights the need to continue to invest in infrastructure.…

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