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Drought Draining Profits From Local Barge Companies

Brett Blume
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8/3/12-"The Captains' Return", a statue commemorating the historic trek of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, towers high above the drought-starved Mississippi River near the Eads Bridge, high and dry. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

8/3/12-”The Captains’ Return”, a statue commemorating the historic trek of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, towers high above the drought-starved Mississippi River near the Eads Bridge, high and dry. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) -  Drop by precious drop, the Mighty Mississippi River continues to melt away beneath the drought’s withering assault.

And that’s starting to have a severe impact on the bottom line of companies that depend on the river as a vital transportation route.

“It’s causing several problems,” points out Ed Henleben, Sr. Operations Manager for Ingram Barge of East Carondelet, just across the river from St. Louis. “Right now we have to load our barges at a much shallower draft than what we typically do at this time of year.”

That means less product loaded onto barges, which in turn means less product moving down the river to market in a timely manner.

Henleben says for every 15-barge load sent out, 765 tons of product is left sitting on the dock.

That’s enough to fill 35 tractor-trucks.

And once those barges hit the water, the problems related to low water levels are far from over.

“It turns our Mississippi waterway into a one-way street,” Henleben says. “There were places in the past where two tows could meet, northbound and southbound tows, and pass each other by with no problem.”

Now they have to wait to go single-file.

Lower water on the Mississippi means more exposed riverbed, and barges are running aground.

Way up north Ingram alone has a dozen barges sitting idle because the river’s closed at St. Paul, with dredging crews frantically trying to dig a nine-foot channel to get those boats moving again.

Just how low is the Mississippi at St. Louis?

“On the gauge downtown by the Arch, the river level is 1.0 (feet),” according to Nick Nichols, Operations Manager for the St. Louis Port Authority.

Of course that doesn’t mean the river’s only one-foot deep beneath the Arch, but one-foot above sea level.

Normally around this time that gauge would be somewhere between 10 to 12 feet, but as Nichols point out, “Nothing’s normal on the Mississippi River.”

Just last year the concern was flooding along the river, which presents it’s own set of problems when barges have to gain clearance under the many bridges that cross the Mississippi from St. Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans.

Speaking of St. Paul, barges are currently stuck above that point because the river’s shut down while dredging crews work frantically to dig a nine-foot channel to get those boats moving again.

What it all comes down to for companies like Ingram Barge is lost time and lost money.

Ingram’s Ed Henleben says it’s the worst drought situation he’s seen on the Mississippi since 1988, when drought-related losses totalled more than $1 billion in ’88 dollars.

lewisclarkold Drought Draining Profits From Local Barge Companies

Roughly one year ago the Lewis & Clark statue was nearly lost beneath the surging Mississippi, going even higher so that at one point only the tip of the hat in William Clark’s outstretched left hand was poking out above water. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

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