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2024 Upper Mississippi River Shipping Season Opens as First Tow Arrives

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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What a difference a year (and a warm winter) makes! Pictured is MV Joseph Patrick Eckstein pushing barges through Lake Pepin on a sunny day with no ice in sight. Two tows last year had to break their way through the ice on Pepin on their way to St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Lee Klaproth)

It couldn't have been more appropriate that the tow named Joseph Patrick Eckstein was the first tow opening the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) 2024 shipping season in the wee hours of the morning on St. Patrick's Day!

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, reported on their website that they locked the Motor Vessel Joseph Patrick Eckstein with 12 barges through Lock and Dam 2, on March 17 in Hastings, Minnesota, enroute to St. Paul, Minnesota.

The St. Paul District considers the first tow to arrive at Lock and Dam 2 as the unofficial start of the Mississippi River navigation season because it means all its locks are accessible to commercial and recreational vessels. The earliest date for an upbound tow to reach Lock and Dam 2 was March 4, in 1983, 1984 and 2000. The average starting date of the navigation season is March 22. The latest arrival date in a nonflood year was April 4, 2008. Historic flooding in 2001 delayed the arrival of the first tow until May 11, according to USACE St. Paul District.

The USACE, St. Paul District, said on their website that, "Lake Pepin is the last major barrier for vessels reaching the head of the navigation channel in St. Paul, Minnesota. Located between the Minnesota cities of Red Wing and Wabasha, Lake Pepin is the last part of the river to break up (ice) because the river is wider, and subsequently, the current is slower there than it is in other parts of the river. If a tow can make it through Lake Pepin, it can make it to St. Paul. The Army Corps of Engineers measures ice thickness on Lake Pepin throughout the spring to report to tow companies about the impending ice-out."

However, this year, the Corps announced in mid-February, "The annual Lake Pepin ice surveys are canceled this year due to unusually warm weather conditions within the region, resulting in less ice than normal. The locks remain closed, however, due to winter maintenance, currently scheduled to be complete no later than March 15."

The "Joe Pat" worked its way upriver on March 16, pushing 12 barges after Lock and Dam 7 opened at 6 p.m. CDT on March 15, once the winter maintenance ended. Lee Klaproth, a Marquette Transportation Company, LLC captain, was on board the Joe Pat training a steersman and said there were quite a few boats at Lock 7 waiting to move up to St. Paul.

Klaproth sent me a message saying they reached Lock and Dam 2 at Hastings, Minnesota, at 12:30 a.m. CDT on Sunday, March 17, and headed to St. Paul where they would be dropping all the barges above the Pig's Eye Railroad Bridge, located southeast of the Holman Field airport in downtown St. Paul.

Meanwhile, the wait is now on for the "other" 2024 shipping season to open in the Port of Duluth-Superior. The grain shipping season there begins when the first saltie (ocean-going vessel) reaches the Twin Ports. The Soo Locks are scheduled to open three days earlier than planned on March 22 thanks to the warm winter and the end of winter maintenance. The first saltie of 2023 made it to Duluth on March 28, 2023.

Navigation through the St. Lawrence Seaway itself will also begin March 22 with the opening of the Montreal-Lake Ontario section, which includes the St. Lawrence River and Welland Canal.

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