River traffic begins to trickle throughCost estimated at $10,000 per barge per day

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Low water on the Mississippi River that has halted dozens of barges and closed harbors is expected to last through October, the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division said Tuesday.

A few hours after the prediction, 17 barges passed inspection and moved out of the 11-mile stretch closed to traffic early Tuesday but reopened later in the day for crafts and cargo meeting guidelines placed by the U.S. Coast Guard, said spokesman Lt. Ryan Gomez. Ninety barges were stranded near Greenville this morning, down from 103 at midmorning Tuesday, he said.

The Corps’ Jadwin was still dredging near Greenville this morning to remove river bottom continuously oversilting the channel and making it shallower daily.

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A 5-mile “safety zone” open only to light vessels remains in effect “until it’s safe and possible” to reopen it, Gomez said.

Until then, the shipping industry is losing an estimated $10,000 per barge per day because of the bottleneck, industry officials in Vicksburg said.

“I’d say that’s about right,” said Roger Harris, vice president of operations for Magnolia Marine and Transport Co.

“The refineries and users of our cargo will have to wait, it drives costs up and makes for delays all around with it,” he said.

Two of Magnolia Marine’s petroleum-filled barges are on the way down from St. Louis, he said, and could be stuck in Greenville if restrictions hold through the week. Loads have been cut about 25 percent on tows overall, he said.

The river stage at Vicksburg at midmorning today was 0.57 feet, down a tenth of a foot from Tuesday. The record low stage in Vicksburg is minus 7 feet, set in 1940. In Greenville, the river was 7.62 feet, down a tenth of a foot in 24 hours.

Stages in Vicksburg are forecast to dip to minus 0.8 feet by mid-September, according to the National Weather Service River Forecast Center. The outlook issued Tuesday shows a minus 10.3 reading by that time in Memphis, less than a foot off the city’s record low of minus 10.7 feet in 1988.

At the Mississippi River Commission’s seasonal low-water inspection meeting in Memphis Tuesday, Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, MVD commander and president of the commission, said river levels are usually lowest in October and aren’t expected to rise until then.

“The worst is ahead of us,” Peabody told The Associated Press. The next meetings are in Greenville today and Friday in Houma, La.

“Twenty-two percent of the nation’s oil moves by barge and a lot of wheat and grains,” said Steve Golding, president of Golding Barge Line of Vicksburg. One of the company’s oil barges, north of Greenville, was expected to move south today, then become stranded in the barge traffic jam.

Problems in grain processing in Madison Parish, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, are exacerbated by an explosion and fire Aug. 12 at the Bunge grain elevator at the port. A phone call to the Madison Parish facility was answered this morning, but questions were referred to the company’s southern district headquarters in Little Rock, where a spokesman declined to say whether operations had returned to full swing.

Four Corps-owned and private contracted dredges worked to dredge the river between St. Louis and Vicksburg. The Port of Vicksburg is set to be dredged in late September.

On Friday, the Corps expects to award a $6.1 million contract to Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. to clear parts of east banks of the river starting about Sept. 7.

Both Vicksburg and Greenville were being considered as a starting point for the work, spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale said.