Months Of Flooding On Mississippi River Marooned Midwest Trade

17 hours ago
Originally published on August 16, 2019 7:06 am

A standard river barge can hold about the same amount as 60 semitrucks. In early June, 642 of them had floated to a standstill near American Commercial Barge Line's office outside Cairo, Ill.

"That's just me. That's not the other fleets in the area," said Mark Glaab, facility manager there. "That's just ACBL."

Businesses and farmers around the Midwest rely on cheap river deliveries to make money on a global scale. High water this summer stranded barges for nearly three months on the upper Mississippi River — the longest time in recorded history. Barges have since started moving again and the long barge lines have largely cleared up, but during the standstill products on barges around the Mississippi River system couldn't reach their buyers.

The barges floating near Glaab's facility were full of salt, fertilizer and steel, among other things.

"I get three or four calls a day," he said. "People wanting to be able to unload their barges here into trucks or into trains because we can't go onto the river until the water goes down. I got plants in Chicago running out of product."

"It seems to get worse every year"

The problem wasn't just high water — it was the locks and dams. Locks are the mechanisms that raise or lower a boat to get it through a dam. When river levels are too high, they're not safe to operate, so barges can't get where they need to go.

There's another problem: Barges can't unload in some places where they're stuck. Cairo, for example, doesn't have a port. Goods can't be offloaded onto trains or trucks there to finish out their journey. This could be a growing problem as water levels trend upward and barges are kept waiting longer.

"The only difference this year is the length of time, but it seems to get worse every year," Glaab said, adding that 75% of recorded river crests at Cairo have happened since the 1980s.

The Shawnee Forest towboat steers down the Ohio River near American Commercial Barge Line's office outside Cairo, Ill. As of June 12, more than 600 barges were waiting to go upstream once water levels dropped..
Madelyn Beck / Illinois Newsroom

Ports could do more than just help farmers and businesses waiting on supplies, though. It could give rural places like Cairo a boost. It's a town with about 2,000 people, no grocery stores and no gas stations. Larry Klein is a fourth-generation Cairo resident and is helping lead efforts to get a port built there.

"I've seen it in its heyday, and I see it today. And well, it hurts. I want to stay around and say that I knew the people that helped get us back on the right track," he said.

"A more efficient river transportation system"

While barges and supplies were trapped going upriver, thousands of tons of grain such as corn and soybeans were waiting to head downriver to be shipped overseas. Just shipping the grain with trucks or trains was far too expensive for most. All they could do was wait.

Greg Guenther farms near St. Louis, and he said the river closure cost him in ways that are hard to calculate. Like many others, he still had grain to ship from last year. If grain is stored for too long, its quality drops along with its value. When the Mississippi was flooding, river terminals stopped buying his corn to send downriver, which nearly cost him in grain quality and did cost him in lost cash flow.

"That corn sitting in the bin is money that's waiting to be utilized," he said. "It is drawing no interest, and it's costing you in electricity and everything else to keep it in condition."

Add to these issues low commodity prices, trade challenges and extremely heavy rains affecting farmers trying to plant crops across the Midwest. Guenther just hopes this barge issue increases awareness of needed water infrastructure upgrades, decades overdue.

"If we had a more efficient river transportation system, when these events happened, when we finally were able to get going again, it would really make things a lot smoother and cost everybody a lot less money," he said.


This reporting was made possible, in part, by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Copyright 2019 Illinois Newsroom. To see more, visit Illinois Newsroom.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A lot of agriculture in the Midwest depends on rivers to cheaply move grain and other farm products to market. But this year, high water has already stranded barges on the upper Mississippi River for nearly three months - the longest time in recorded history.

As part of our series on this wet summer, Illinois Newsroom's Madelyn Beck reports on the fallout from these record-high river levels.

MADELYN BECK, BYLINE: River barges are enormous. One standard barge holds as much as 58 large semitrucks. And in early June, about 640 barges floated to a standstill near American Commercial Barge Line's office outside Cairo, Ill.

MARK GLAAB: That's just me. That's not the other fleets in the area. That's just ACBL.

BECK: That's Mark Glaab, the facility manager there. His boats push these barges full of salt, grain, fertilizer and steel up and down the river.

GLAAB: I get three or four calls a day with people wanting to be able to unload their barges here into trucks or into trains, because we can't go on the river until the water goes down. I got plants in Chicago running out of product.

BECK: The problem isn't the barges, it's the locks and dams. Locks are the mechanisms that raise or lower a boat to get it through a dam. When river levels are too high, they're not safe to operate, so barges can't get where they need to go.

And there's another problem. Barges can't unload in some places where they're stuck - places like Cairo, Ill., which doesn't have a port, so goods can't be offloaded onto trains or trucks. This could be a growing problem as water levels trend upwards and barges are kept waiting longer.

GLAAB: The only difference this year is the length of time. But it seems to get worse every year.

BECK: Glaab says that 75% of recorded river crests at Cairo have happened since the '80s. So high waters could conceivably encourage city planners to try and build more ports to get stranded products off the river. And that could give rural places like Cairo a boost - a town with about 2,000 people, no grocery stores and no gas stations.

Larry Klein heads the port authority there and is a fourth-generation Cairo resident.

LARRY KLEIN: I've seen it in its heyday, and I've - I see it today. And, well, it hurts. I want to stay around and say that I knew the people that helped get us back on the right track.

BECK: While barges and supplies were trapped going upriver, thousands of tons of grain like corn and soybeans were waiting to head downriver to be shipped overseas. And while trucking and rail were an option for some, that's too expensive for most farmers. All they could do was wait.

Greg Guenther farms near St. Louis, and he says the river closure costs him in ways that are hard to calculate. Like many others, he still has grain to ship from last year. If grain is stored for too long, its quality drops along with its value. When the Mississippi was flooding, river terminals stopped buying his corn to send downriver.

GREG GUENTHER: And then that corn sitting in the bin is money that's waiting to be utilized that is drawing no interest. And it's costing you in electricity and everything else to keep it in condition.

BECK: Add to those issues low commodity prices, trade challenges and extremely heavy rains affecting thousands of farmers across the Midwest. Guenther hopes this barge issue increases awareness of needed water infrastructure upgrades, long overdue.

GUENTHER: If we had a more efficient river transportation system, when these events happened, when we finally - we're able to get going again, it would really make things a lot smoother and cost everybody a lot less money.

BECK: While the Mississippi River system does have problems, it also makes U.S. agriculture globally competitive. It's cheaper to ship on water than on land. But that water may become an even harder force to tame as massive rainstorms cause it to peak and flood more often.

For NPR News, I'm Madelyn Beck in Galesburg, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "THE SORROW BIRD" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.