River watchers say rain up north may help navigation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 28, 2000

Those who use the Mississippi River as a commercial highway are looking for relief and think a rainstorm across Ohio and Illinois might be the ticket.

Last week, the Corps of Engineers dredge Jadwin was working in the bend at Vicksburg, providing river watchers quite a spectacle.

The river was falling then, but rose briefly to 3.8 feet on the Vicksburg gauge before starting to fall again.

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That’s to be expected, for October is traditionally the driest month of the year. The problem is that October will follow a drier-than-normal summer.

With the Mississippi at a level of 2.2 feet this morning and forecast to drop 2 more feet during the weekend, towboat operators are wary. With narrow channels, traffic gets congested and there’s the constant caution against grounding acres of barges amid swirling currents.

But the upstream news is good news. “Cairo got a pretty good rain Monday,” said Wayland Hill of the Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers.

Looking at the records from the National Weather Service, Hill said rainfall in the Ohio Basin and on the Upper Mississippi made the Mississippi at the town at the southernmost tip of Illinois jump. It is supposed to be at a level of 20.6 feet on the gauge there Monday, meaning a lot of water is headed in this direction. It takes eight or 10 days for water to move from Cairo to Vicksburg and the prediction is that it will increase local readings by 3.5 feet.

Even that rise, however, won’t bring the Mississippi to the average stage here for this time of year. The average of historic records from 1932 to 1999 indicates the river should be at a level of about 8 feet on the local gauge.

The conditions on the river are a result of the dry weather the country has experienced since last year. The wet months of 1999 did not bring the river to very high stages last year and did not leave much for the spring of 2000 to build on. As a result, the Mississippi achieved one of the lowest peak readings, 29.3 feet in March, it has had since records have been kept.

It’s been tough on the towboats, said Emmett Neal of Magnolia Marine Transportation.

“We’ve had to cut the draft of our barges back a foot and a half,” he said.

In addition to cargo it moves for others, the Vicksburg based towing company also moves a large amount of crude oil into Vicksburg to feed a refinery its parent company, Ergon Inc., has on the E.W. Haining Industrial Center.

Draft is the depth that a barge or other vessel extends below water level. Reducing the draft meant that the barges could not be loaded with the same amount of cargo as they can carry with higher river stages.

“That’s about a 14 percent reduction,” Neal said.

In addition to that, Neal said the extremely low water levels have caused traffic problems at narrow points in the river. At one point, a Magnolia boat and tow had to hold up when the channel was not wide enough to allow two-way traffic.

That was one of the problems the Corps of Engineers was trying to avoid when it had the dredge Jadwin working at Vicksburg.

Even though the river looks quite wide in the bend here, the actual channel towboats can use is very narrow and is very close to the Mississippi bank. The restriction in the bend is a sandbar that is probably a leftover from when the river made a sharp, hairpin bend to flow past Vicksburg.

Bill Hobgood, chief of the District’s operations division, said the Jadwin was cutting a swath about 200 feet wide into the bar to widen the channel.