Low water levels on the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers are the latest shipping snarl threatening to disrupt the upcoming harvest season.

Barges are lightening their loads to avoid running aground, which decreases the overall efficiency of the system in the upper Midwest, where a dry summer in the Missouri and Ohio river valleys has led to low water levels in all three river systems.

Barge companies have agreed to send no more than 25 barges at a time on the Mississippi south of St. Louis because of the narrower and shallower shipping channel, Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek said. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District said in a statement last week that it was monitoring low water levels on the river and using dredging to maintain a 9-foot depth for navigation in the channel north of Cairo, Illinois. There were no restrictions in the channel by that date, the agency said.

“Based on a 28-day forecast, we do not see any areas where our dredging operations will not keep up with the forecasting falling river stages,” said Lou Dell’Orco, the St. Louis District’s Chief of Operations.

More than 1,500 barges were waiting for the river to open after dredging on Monday, according to Deb Calhoun, a senior vice president for the Waterways Council, which represents shippers on the inland waterway system and other stakeholders. She said operators will be restricted to a maixum of 25 barges, each with a maximum draft of 9 feet, six inches, when the water level at Memphis, Missouri, is 10.7 feet below the zero datum level, a hydrologic term equating roughly to sea level for a stream or river gauge.

Mike SteenhoekMike Steenhoek, Soy Transportation Coalition

“The Mississippi drains 41% of the country and we just had a very large area not experiencing normal rainfall for the last several months,” Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast center, said. “That’s really the contributor.”

Water levels are currently at around 10 feet above the zero datum level near Cairo, Illinois. At the Memphis site further downstream, water levels are eight feet below the zero datum level. At Red River Landing, Louisiana, the river is at 16.1 feet above the zero datum, but is projected to fall to around 15 feet by October 9.

The lower Mississippi has not seen water levels this low since 2012, Graschel said. But it’s not uncommon for the river to see lower conditions in the fall season than in the spring and summer, he added.

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“This is the time of year that we typically have low water conditions on the lower Mississippi,” he said. “It’s just that they’re at lower levels than what we would typically average for this time of year.”

A typical barge, according to Steenhoek, can be loaded with around 50,000 bushels of soybeans. On the Mississippi River in areas north of St. Louis, as well as on the Illinois and Ohio Rivers, shippers often join together 15 barges that can carry around 750,000 total bushels of soybeans. 

But shipping companies load barges lighter in a low-water system to prevent groundings. Steenhoek said 5,000 fewer bushels of soybeans will be loaded per barge for every one-foot reduction in water depth. That means a 15-barge tow would carry 75,000 fewer bushels for every one-foot drop in water level.

“You have a given amount of production that farmers are producing and now, because you’re restricted in how much you’re able to load per barge, you’re having to have more turns of that particular barge,” Steenhoek said.

As water levels in the river have decreased, the cost for shipping has increased. USDA figures put the St. Louis barge rate for export grain on Sept. 7 at $49.88 per ton, which is 95% higher than the 5-year average and 58% higher than the same period last year.

“When transportation costs are going up and, in this case, barge transportation costs are going up, those costs are disproportionately passed on to farmers in the form of a lower price or a more negative basis,” Steenhoek said. “So that’s something that’s certainly eating into farmer profitability.”

Matt Ziegler, a manager of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, said the shipping challenges could hinder the transportation of corn, too. He noted, however, that global inflation has loosened demand for corn exports, which will reduce some of the industry’s need for barge shipping.

“If demand for exports were higher, we might really be up a creek,” Ziegler said.

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