The timing could not be worse, as crops are being harvested while water levels are at record lows.
The nation’s supply chain challenges now include the barge traffic stoppages on the usually reliable Mississippi River.
According to the US Corp of Engineers, the total value of domestic commerce that moved from Minneapolis to the mouth of the river was almost $70 billion in 2020.
Last week, the traffic halted as low water levels grounded several barges.
The lowest water levels in the Mississippi River in a decade, caused by a severe Midwest drought, have closed the vital channel to barge traffic at a crucial time of the year for the transport of crops from the nation’s heartland.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging portions of the river for the past week in an attempt to deepen channels and get barge traffic moving again. But the closures have caused a massive tie-up in the nation’s already struggling supply chains.
The low water has also been responsible for eight barges running aground during the last week, according to a report from the US Coast Guard.
As of Friday, the Coast Guard reports that there are 144 vessels and 2,253 barges queued up and waiting to get through two stretches of the river where traffic has been halted – one near Memphis, the other just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. While the Coast Guard statement said it hopes to resume traffic again as soon as late Friday, it couldn’t say for certain when that would happen.
The timing could not be worse, as crops are harvested while water levels are at record lows.
Some Mississippi River communities between St. Louis and New Orleans may see record low water levels in the coming days, including Caruthersville, Missouri, and Osceola, Arkansas. The National Weather Service predicts the reading at Memphis, Tennessee, will reach its second-lowest level ever by Oct. 13.
The timing is bad. Corn and soybeans harvested in the early fall need to be moved, and barges are vital in getting the commodities from one place to another.
Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that normally, tows are able to move 36 barges at a time. With the water level so low, shippers have voluntarily agreed to cut that to 25 barges.
The result is likely to be even more inflation in food prices, as the inland barge system is an effective and efficient form of transportation. Transporters and food producers will have to find more expensive alternatives, which will be pricier due to escalating fuel costs.
Agriculture shippers for corn, soybeans, and wheat use barges as a cheaper alternative to trucks or rail to move their grain in bulk. Just under half (47%) of all grain is moved by barge, according to the USDA. Approximately 5.4 million barrels of crude and 35% of thermal coal are moved on the Mississippi.
“While the public and media generally understand that our economy depends upon viable international ocean shipping, trucking, and rail transportation, the essential role of our inland waterways is often overlooked,” said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition. “Our members depend upon adequate water levels in the Mississippi River system, to reach domestic and international export markets.
“The low water disruption of the supply chain will be felt not only by our U.S. producers of food, farm, and fiber but also by U.S. and international consumers as well.”
Meanwhile, where is our erstwhile Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg? Doing the campaigning that the Democrats apparently don’t want Biden or Harris to do. He is on the campaign trail for November’s slate of Democratic candidates.
With invitations flowing into the White House and the Democratic National Committee, a relatively low-ranking Cabinet secretary’s staff has to choose between Democratic candidates trying to chase him down. There’s no precedent for this. But there’s also no precedent for the winner of the Iowa caucuses becoming Transportation secretary and proving more agile on camera than the vice president and Biden.
Other times, low water levels in the Mississippi have created challenges to domestic transportation. In 2012, a massive drought led to $35 billion in losses for the nation, and barge traffic on the river was halted on at least three occasions.
However, many other factors, including fertilizer supplies and fuel costs, will likely magnify the supply chain crisis this year. Here’s hoping for good rains, new representation, and better policies.DONATE
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