“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.

 

HUGE DREDGING EFFORTS

“We moved more than 29 million cubic yards of sand, weighing as much as 92 Empire State Buildings,” says Bob Anderson, a USACE public affairs officer.

Speeding up permanent removal of rock pinnacles in the channel at Thebes, Ill., added 2 ft. to the channel’s depth, says Mike Petersen, another USACE spokesman.

“That’s a more long-term solution that will ease those choke points unless we hit new record lows,” Petersen says.

The situation was also aided by heavy rains associated with tropical storm Sandy and a long-term Corps effort to build “river training structures” that focus the force of the river’s flow to scour sediment from the channel – “like the effect of putting your thumb over the tip of your garden hose,” Petersen explains.

Still, there were repeated reports that the river might close in December and January. That uncertainty by itself created problems. “If you’re loading a barge in Houston to move North, the trip will take 10-14 days under a worst-case scenario,” says McCulloch. “If you don’t know whether you’ll have 9 ft. of water in two weeks, you have to make other plans.

“That’s why the Corps’ confidence about river levels through spring is so important. It helps give a degree of certainty.”

It’s been “a nail-biter of a winter,” says Petersen. “We’ve not had a single grounding on the mid-Mississippi navigation channel. That’s a testament not just to dredging, but also to the engineering of the past 20 years.”

The Corps plans to work more on the middle Mississippi, which can deliver a “huge return on investment,” Petersen says. “We could completely re-engineer the middle Mississippi for the cost of replacing one lock.”

 

DROUGHT THREAT REMAINS

That continues to be important, since there’s widespread understanding that the Corps and river users could face new challenges from drought this year.

“Very few droughts are one-year events,” Petersen acknowledges. “The 1988-1989 drought cycle wasn’t fully broken until 1993. As we’ve seen in the last two years, the Mississippi can change its mind very fast.

“We’re still living from [rain] forecast to forecast.”

Iowa State Extension Climatologist Elwynn Taylor explains the dynamics behind Petersen’s example. “When precipitation returns, soils will wick it up until they reach full field capacity. In much of the Corn Belt, that means 10 in. water in the top 5 ft. of soil before the tiles start running.

“In 2012, we had crop roots going deeper, down as much as 8 ft., and they took all the available moisture. To replenish that would require 16 in. of rain – then the agricultural drought will be over and any excess precipitation will percolate into wells, tiles, streams and rivers to ease the hydrological drought.”

Though rains have returned in much of the eastern Corn Belt, Taylor expects to see “precious little correction” of the hydrological drought in 2013.

“That’s going to mean more limits on the headwaters of our great rivers. I anticipate shipping will still be limited above the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi in the fall of 2013, and probably above the confluence with the Ohio.”

The Soy Transportation Coalition’s Steenhoek is also concerned.

“It’s a big deal with water levels already depleted. We would hate to start the year already low seeing barges loaded light.

“We don’t manufacture a unique product like iPads where you have the luxury of passing additional transportation costs along to your consumer. Our primary competitive advantage is our ability to out-deliver other suppliers," he says. “Our farmers pay the freight.”

The AWO’s McCulloch raises another concern: “If we get into a prolonged drought, the question is whether you continue to manage situation by situation or do you take a more comprehensive look at the Mississippi and all its tributaries. That’s the next question for the Corps and the river users to address.”

Corps officials are anticipating they could have less water to work with than they had in 2012.

“Drought still affects the entire Midwest,” says Petersen. “The Missouri River is dealing with the same drought as the Mississippi. Water management is difficult in good years, but in a drought, it is very contentious.”