|Towboats line the shore near Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio|
flows into the Mississippi. (Photo by Chris Kenning, USA Today)
How far the river will drop is uncertain, but "Mississippi water levels have been falling since June. The Ohio River, which usually has more volume than the Mississippi at their confluence, "dropped almost 10 feet in the last two weeks of August. Levels are predicted to fall farther in the coming weeks," Kenning writes. Margy Eckelkamp of Farm Journal reports, "Most notably, fewer barges are being connected to form a single unit. And barges are being loaded to lighter weight." Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told Eckelkamp: "When you start diminishing both the depths that barges can sink to and the number of barges you can put together, that changes the economics of barge transportation, which certainly impacts our competitiveness. . . . It's a movie sequel that none of us wanted to watch."
"With 61% of the Midwest classified as abnormally dry or in drought as of late August, most of the Mississippi is expected to face low water in September that will most likely affect industry and navigation, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System," Kenning reports. "That's worrying farmers who ship grains such as soybeans on the river to New Orleans and, from there, around the globe – relying on lower costs that help keep it competitive for the global export market. They fear another year of backups and spiking costs that eat into profits."
The forecast doesn't look hopeful. David Welch, a National Weather Service hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told Kenning, "Right now, there's no rainfall in sight that will turn things around." Kenning notes that nearly 60% of U.S. grain exports use barges, which are "less expensive than trains, can each carry 70 semi-trucks worth of grain. Industry officials said it's a key reason U.S. soybeans are globally competitive. Last year, stymied barge traffic meant nearby granaries filled up, leaving some farmers scrambling for more expensive or distant storage options."