Upper Mississippi River shippers celebrated the opening of the 2016 shipping season over the weekend with the arrival of two tow boats. There was no cause for celebration on the Lower Mississippi, though, with the river at or near flood stage and likely to cause shipping delays.
On Saturday, March 12, the first tow of the season, the Ronald E. Wagenblast, was making its way through the thin ice on Lake Pepin. Located 60 miles downriver from St. Paul, Minnesota, Lake Pepin is the widest naturally occurring part of the Mississippi River. Pepin is the last roadblock for barges waiting to come upriver to open the spring shipping season.
Close behind was a second tow, the Jonathan Erickson. Both tows were pushing barges upriver to the St. Paul, Minnesota, District and arrived at Lock and Dam 2 on March 13 in the early morning hours to celebrate the opening of the 2016 shipping season.
This year, Pepin had an early melt. On March 9, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the thickest ice was 10 inches and that they no longer would continue measurements on the lake since barges can break through ice less than 20 inches thick. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) said the 10-year average for the first towboat to arrive in the St. Paul District is March 24. The earliest date for an up-bound tow to reach Lock and Dam 2 was March 4, in 1983, 1984 and 2000, according to the USACE. The latest start to a navigation season since 1970 occurred on April 16, 2014.
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Tows also had to wait for the reopening of Lock and Dam 9 on March 12, but nobody could have predicted that Lake Pepin's ice would be nearly gone by now. Lock and Dam 9, near Lynxville, Wisconsin, was closed to all navigation traffic Dec. 9, 2015, for winter maintenance, but the mild winter allowed for the repairs to be completed earlier than scheduled. The Corps originally projected reopening the lock March 17.
NO CELEBRATION IN LMR AS FLOODING RETURNS
On March 10, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency for the entire state because "a strong upper-level storm system that has caused thunderstorms across most of the state, is expected to continue through the week and bring heavy rain, flash flooding and damaging winds to areas which are already experienced flooding." The storms dropped up to 20 inches of rain in parts of the state, causing near-record flooding and forcing a call-up of the National Guard to help evacuate thousands of people from their homes.
Remember back to early January when the flooding caused the St. Louis Harbor to close and caused tow and barges to pile up in the Harbor. Then, as St. Louis started to recover, the trickle-down effect caused slowdowns and closures from Vicksburg to New Orleans, which in turn caused tow boats and barges to bunch up in the south.
On March 2, Tom Russell, Russell Marine Group, told me, "Tow companies have been upside-down and out of sync during high water that occurred during January and February. The result was a backlog of barges waiting to be hauled. Tow boats are now returning to normal traffic patterns and ironing out the delays. Most high-water safety restrictions have been lifted in Baton Rouge, but dredges are at work in the southwest pass (SWP) due to the high water causing excessive silting."
Less than two weeks after our conversation, the Mississippi River was on the rise once again. On Sunday, March 14, the river at Vicksburg was at 42.59 feet and was expected to crest at flood stage of 43 feet late evening on March 14. The river at Baton Rouge was at 35.12 feet (flood stage is 35 feet) and is expected to continue rising until cresting at around 36.5 feet by early Wednesday morning, March 16. http://goo.gl/…
Until the river returns to normal, conditions in the lower Mississippi river down to the Gulf will likely cause shipping delays due to high water and restrictions once again. Once the river recedes, dredges will likely head back to work on the areas where more shoaling occurred due to the flooding.
Mary Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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