By Mary Kennedy
DTN Cash Grains Analyst
In my July 29 column, "Flooding Turns Mississippi River Into a Sandbox," I discussed the shoaling left behind on nearly the entire Mississippi River System by the 2019 flooding. I noted that the Army Corp of Engineers Rock Island District said that, normally, dredging costs them $2 million, but this year, they are paying $10 million, or five times more than normal.
On Aug. 12, the Army Corp of Engineers put out an SOS to the River Industry Executive Task Force (RIETF) that the Rock Island Engineer District would have to start removing dredges from the rivers on Aug. 17 due to a lack of funding.
According to an article in the Waterways Journal Aug. 19 newsletter, the district said it had not yet received emergency dredging funds allocated by Congress. They were referring to the June 6 Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019, in which Congress provided an additional $100 million for "emergency operations, repairs, and other activities in response to such disasters" above and beyond the Corps' usual appropriations.
Darin Adrian, RIETF co-chair, sent a letter to eight U.S. senators on Aug. 13 warning about the funding for emergency dredging in the Rock Island District running out and urging Congress to direct the Corps to allocate the funds appropriated in the disaster relief act to avert additional disruptions to the nation's inland waterway transportation system.
"The nation's waterway transportation system has been gravely harmed with river closures and severe tow restrictions throughout the system since late 2018 due to unprecedented flooding," Adrian stated in the letter, the full text of which was published by American Commercial Barge Line in its daily online newsletter "American Currents."
"After 85 days of closure on the Upper Mississippi River and lengthy closures on most major rivers, barge traffic is finally moving," Adrian stated. "Despite the re-opening, barge traffic is still moving with restricted tows and random river closures.
"In fact, funding for emergency dredging in the Rock Island District will be exhausted in the coming days and the Corps anticipates that the Dredge Goetz will cease operations by Saturday, Aug. 17, due to lack of funding. We are requesting your help to ensure that the funds appropriated with the passage of H.R. 2157 -- Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019 ($100 million) -- be made available immediately. The industry members of RIETF urges Congress to direct the Corps to allocate the funds to avert additional disruptions to the nation's inland waterway transportation system."
Adrian told senators that, without immediate action, over 20 reaches of the Mississippi River in the Rock Island District alone were in danger of closure by Aug. 17. He said RIETF also expected similar dredging issues to affect the St. Paul District, the St. Louis District, the Lower Mississippi, and other waterways in the near future if emergency funding wasn't distributed to the appropriate districts.
"If this vital segment of the Upper Mississippi River is not maintained to its fully authorized width and depth, the nation's heartland will face severe economic consequences," Adrian said.
SHOALING MORE PROBLEMATIC THAN NORMAL IN 2019
Dredging is not an unusual event on the river. The USACE St. Paul District notes on their website that sedimentation (shoaling) in navigational channels can be caused by the normal cycle of silt movement, erosion from high water or heavy rains and changes in river currents. To maintain the 9-foot navigation channel every shipping season, material that settles in the channel area is removed by mechanical or hydraulic dredging.
However, the relentless flooding of 2019 left behind a big mess throughout the Mississippi River System and its navigable tributaries. Areas on the Upper Mississippi River have been shut down recently because of barge groundings or have seen slowdowns in traffic because of shoaling, even with the Corps dredging constantly over the entire summer so far. Dredging has also been started in the Lower Mississippi River after the floodwaters finally receded there.
American Commercial Barge Line noted there are many problem spots on the Lower Mississippi, with the major one at Victoria Bend (LM 595). This area is restricted to daylight only for tows with 30 or more barges and there is currently not a dredge scheduled in this area to assist with this problem. Delays and slow transit in this area are expected to last until the end of the August.
Another location causing problems for transit is LM 807 just below Blytheville, Arkansas, where the Mississippi River is very swift and boats are having issues making it through the area heading northbound without an assist boat.
On the Arkansas River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, there is significant shoaling located at miles 222 and 350 with both areas being dredged, while dredges continue to work on problem areas above Van Buren (AK 298), according to ACBL.
"There were barges stuck on ground holding the lock gate open at Lock 16 (AK 366)," ACBL said. "In order to get the barges off ground and out of the way of the lock gate, the Corps had to drain the pool above the lock and in doing this they will lose the pool. It is then expected to take several weeks to close the locks and several more weeks for them to restore the pool. Given this information there is currently no estimation on when we will be able to reach Catoosa."
I contacted the USACE Rock Island District late on Friday, Aug. 16, and asked if they had any update on the funding needed to keep dredging. They responded: "Our Operations Division Chief Tom Heinold confirmed earlier today that the Dredge Goetz has funding to operate through the weekend due to limited funding received from USACE St. Louis District. Beyond that, we do not have any further updates on supplemental funding."
ACBL also noted late Friday afternoon in their newsletter, "The U.S. government has provided funding for dredging operations on the Upper Mississippi through the week of Aug. 18."
Given that dredging will likely need to continue for many months along the entire river system, it is imperative that the funds allocated by H.R. 2157 are dispersed to all the districts in need so they can continue to keep the river safe for barges moving north and south.
Mary Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn
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