“It’s 75% true – we dodged a major bullet and were able to carry commodities through the winter on the Mississippi,” says Ann McCulloch, vice president of public affairs for the American Waterways Operators (AWO). “But we are still very concerned. That was a major concern from November when the Corps of Engineers (USACE) reduced Missouri River flow into the Mississippi.” (The Corps reduced the flow out of Gavins Point in late November to mitigate low-water issues in the Dakotas. This raised stakeholders’ competing needs and five different priorities established in the corps’ Master Manual.)

With less water contributed from the Missouri, shipping conditions on the middle Mississippi, the key 180 miles from the Missouri to the confluence with the Ohio, were nip-and-tuck all winter as the Corps cobbled together water releases from Illinois reservoirs with day-and-night work to keep the channel open.

Soybean export numbers show just how important an open channel is.

“We export about 80% of our soybeans in the September-to-February period,” says Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “When the South American harvest comes in March, our exports drop. The concentration of U.S. exports in the fall and the decline when South America's crop comes in primarily reflects competitive world markets. (South American exports show a similar pattern when the U.S. crop starts to come in, Steenhoek says.) So a river problem that delays significant export volumes means that late shipments would face more competition.

South Louisiana ports handle almost 60% of U.S. soy exports, and barges carry 9 out of every 10 bu. to South Louisiana.

Similarly, more than 70% of U.S. corn exports ship from the New Orleans region, and most arrive at the export terminals by barge.

The crisis on the middle Mississippi this year was yet another product of the 2012 drought.

The barge industry has dealt with low water since last summer, says McCulloch. “Barges should load to a 12-ft. draft, but have been limited to 9 ft. since mid July. At the same time, tows got smaller, so we lost a lot of volume per tow and a lot of efficiency.”At 12 ft. of draft, a barge carries 58,000 bu. of soybeans, according to the Soy Transport Coalition. Every inch of draft you can’t use reduces the cargo by about 17,000 lbs (or roughly 283 bu.), says the Corps’ Bob Anderson.

The Army Corps began ’round-the-clock dredging last summer, an effort that eventually involved 25 dredges and survey crews borrowed from as far east as Buffalo, N.Y.