Water levels in parts of the shrunken Mississippi River and its tributaries are reaching depths not seen in more than 30 years, grounding barges and forcing producers to store more of their grain. 

Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Lower Mississippi River Forecast center, says water levels at Cairo, Illinois, and Memphis, Tennessee, broke modern-day low water records on Monday, which had been previously set in 1988. The river is currently 5.92 feet above what's called the "zero datum" level at Cairo and 10.72 feet below zero datum at Memphis.

So far this month, the low water levels have grounded 30 vessels in the area covered by the Coast Guard's 8th District, which includes the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, according to Jose Hernandez, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th district. These groundings further delay barge traffic, Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told Agri-Pulse.  

“We’re continuing to see water levels drop and some periodic groundings of some of these barges, which then results in a shutdown for that portion of the river until those barges can be relieved,” Steenhoek said. “So this is something that’s continuing to be a problem and, unfortunately, it’s getting worse.”

Steenhoek said there have been pronounced problems on the stretch of river between Memphis and Louisiana. He noted that some farmers in this region don’t have adequate storage and have limited processing options in their local communities due to the region’s long-standing reliance on the river for transportation. 

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“This is a key way of getting soybeans and grain to our export markets at a very critical time of the year and this maritime highway is not operating as it normally does,” Steenhoek said. “There’s real consequences to that.”

Barge spot rates did plummet this week due to an increase in the number of shippers who are delaying deliveries until later in the year, according to the Agriculture Department. The St. Louis barge spot rate fell from $105.85 per ton last week to $72.58 per ton this week.

Graschel said some rainfall is expected in the next couple of weeks, but doesn’t believe it will provide long-term relief along the river.

“Our long range modules are still showing some pretty low water for the lower part of the Mississippi River at this time, but we do have a cold front that is moving through that may give us a little bit of rainfall,” Graschel said. “But we’d certainly have to add more rain than that to really alleviate the low water conditions we’re having now.”

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