Port is coping with low river, Mansfield says

Published 11:44 am Thursday, July 26, 2012

No matter how low the Mississippi River falls, the Port of Vicksburg will stay busy, its director said this morning.

“Unloading is fine, but loading steel coil can be tricky due to a barge’s proximity to the dock,” Wayne Mansfield told members of Port City Kiwanis. “But, we’ll be fine. We’re still ginnin’.”

The river at Vicksburg was 1.82 feet this morning. The lowest recorded in the city was negative 7 feet, on Feb. 3, 1940. Its height came last year, when it climbed to 57.1 feet on May 19 during the historic flood. The river stood at 28.2 feet in Vicksburg on this date last year.

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A “minus” reading does not mean the river is dried up; it’s a measurement of how the river gauge is designed. Forecasts by the National Weather Service River Forecast Center show the river at Vicksburg dipping to a tenth of a foot by mid-August, the same as its low point in 2006, which was the lowest since 1988.

Survey boats with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have teamed with government and commercial dredges to dig out silt and ensure the navigation channel is deep enough for barges loaded with coal, steel, agricultural products and other goods.

Vicksburg’s inland port is one of six shallow draft ports on a dredging list this summer. The port area dredging is expected to be completed in September. Cargo is being loaded about a foot off the dock before making it onto the support platform, said Albert Smith, fleet manager for Ergon Marine and Industrial Supply.

“We’re working around it, just like everyone else is,” Smith said.

Through June, 212,999 tons of material have been unloaded at the port this year, up 31 percent from the total for all of 2011.

Upriver, stone dikes are speeding the flow of water through certain areas, causing the river to deposit less sediment in the channel. On the lower Mississippi River, the Corps is required to provide a minimum navigation channel that is 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide.

No sections of the river are expected to close, despite the low stages and higher number of groundings than typical, according to the Coast Guard. In Memphis, the river dipped to negative 7.1 feet Wednesday, but isn’t expected to sink to the record low of negative 10.7 feet set in 1988, when a section of the river was closed for four days.

Still, low levels from Cairo, Ill., to Vicksburg are causing problems for river barges, which haul thousands of tons of material up and down the waterway each day.

According to the American Waterways Operators, a trade organization for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, losing a foot of water results in a loss of 204 tons of cargo capacity per barge. Tows in the lower Mississippi consist of 30 to 45 barges each, resulting in decreased capacity of more than 9,000 tons per trip, said Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators.

“This would be the equivalent of adding 130 tractor-trailer trucks to the highways or 570 rail cars on the rail system for just one large tow,” Allegretti said in a release last week.

The trade group has identified 10 areas from Cairo to Vicksburg that have become problem spots, said Lynn Muench, a senior vice president with the American Waterways Operators. Muench said the group did not have estimates on how much money is being lost every day, but she said it is significant.

Forecasts have the river dropping to negative 9.6 feet in Memphis by mid-August and 1.4 feet in New Orleans.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.