FORT SMITH — The drought of 2012, which already has cost the American economy billions of dollars in lost crops and reduced beef, poultry and pork production, is now exacting a toll on shipping.
Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered a portion of the Mississippi River closed for a time as numerous barges traveling the river were running aground in the shallow waters.
Particularly affected is an 11-mile stretch of the river near Greenville, Miss. At one point, up to 100 tows hauling multiple barges were snarled along the low-water section as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers deployed dredging equipment, and rerouted lighter tows through the navigation channel.
At Memphis, officials are predicting the river level could drop to within a foot of its record low in 1988. The drought that year is estimated to have cost the U.S. barge industry about $1 billion in losses, according to the American Meteorological Society.
Major Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division Corps, said last week river levels will likely remain low into October, which is typically when levels are the lowest each year.
"The worst is ahead of us," Peabody told the Associated Press.
In addition to its Mississippi River ports, Arkansas’ major connection to the Mississippi is the McCellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The 445-mile stretch of navigable river extends from the Mississippi to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, Okla.
The system provides a vital and growing water transportation link for the state and region. In 2011, more than 10.5 million tons of materials were carried by barge in, out and through the system, according to records kept by the Corps. Through July, the volume has topped 8.8 million tons.
Marty Shell, owner of Five Rivers Distribution, a firm contracted to operate the Port of Fort Smith and which owns a private operation at the Port of Van Buren, said business on the Arkansas River is largely unaffected by the problems on the Mississippi River.
Shell said the conditions caused by the drought have, in effect, forced barge operations on the Mississippi River to limit themselves to the conditions under which Arkansas River barges regularly do their business. The channel depth is lowered from 12 to 9 feet, which is the current minimum depth on the Arkansas.
Shell said the Mississippi River tows, which can include as many as 65 barges, are being divided into smaller tows of 12-15 barges, the largest one is likely to see on the Arkansas River.
"This business operates at the mercy of Mother Nature," Shell said, noting this year’s record drought comes on the heels of record floods, which also served to hamper barge traffic.
In fact, river observers say the floods of 2011 are a factor in the low-water situation on the Mississippi River now. Carried with the record floodwaters — the river crested at Memphis at just over 48 feet — were tons of silt and sand, which was pulled into the river, creating and redefining sandbars and low water channels the Corps of Engineers had already been working to remove before last week’s crisis conditions.
Laurie Driver, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its Little Rock office, said the McClellan-Kerr is immune to the problems plaguing the Mississippi River. The difference, she said, is the series of 18 locks and dams the Corps built along the waterway.
Driver said the system, coupled with several Corps reservoirs built upstream, collects water and releases it to maintain a constant flow, resulting in a minimum nine-foot depth along the channel. If the river flow decreases, more water from the reservoirs goes into the river to keep the level constant.
"That’s why we’re operating normally now while the Mississippi isn’t," she said.
Paul Latture, director of the Port of Little Rock, said Thursday effects of the low water on the Mississippi River had been "minimal so far." "Depending on how long it goes, the situation could get serious," he said.
Latture said the Little Rock port had recently received some deliveries, but had no major deliveries en route.
He said the majority of shipping through Little Rock is inbound, coming off the Mississippi, so blockage could prevent barges from bringing material into the state. "We need to have full barges coming in to unload," he said. A disruption of that traffic would impact deliveries of building materials, fertilizers and iron and steel, he said. "The biggest issue on the Mississippi right now is grain," Latture said. "A lot of grain coming from the upper Mississippi to New Orleans, where it is loaded for export."
Bob Portiss, who oversees operation of the Port of Catoosa at the Oklahoma terminus of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, said he was not aware of any problems relating to the low water that have impacted his operation.
"I’ve never seen anything like this in my history," Portiss said of the Mississippi River conditions. "The last time it was like this was in the 1950s."
He said the only proper solution to the problem is "some rain."
Rusty Garrett writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith