Rivers in Mississippi and Ohio are drying up for the second straight day Ship’s crew

By Brian K. Sullivan (Bloomberg) —

Water levels on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers are falling for the second straight day, raising the risk of shipping problems on key US cargo routes.

In Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, water levels have dropped more than 6 feet in the last week and are expected to drop more than 4 feet by the end of July. push the Ohio River to its so-called deep stage – when barges can run aground and shipping lanes have to narrow. In St. Louis to the north, the Mississippi could drop another 3 feet; Memphis is forecast to double its decline, which is also a low.

Widespread drought in the Midwest and reduced rainfall in parts of the eastern United States are the reason for the falling river level last year also crashed to worryingly shallow depths. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries are major US cargo artery for the transportation of coal, oil, natural gas, chemicals and raw materials.

“We’re starting this year low and pretty dry,” said David Welch, a hydrologist with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. “We don’t see much relief in sight.” Currently, about 64% of the Midwest is affected by drought, the worst drought in more than a decade.

If the water level drops, shipping on the waterways threatens to suffocate and transport costs increase. Sometimes the barges need to be loaded with less cargo so they can go high in the river and not get stuck at the bottom. Low river levels can also force the US Army Corps of Engineers to dredge canals to allow shipping traffic. The low readings contributed about $20 billion in economic losses last year, according to an estimate by AccuWeather Inc.

Earlier this week the US Army Corps of Engineers started Construction of a saltwater weir on the Mississippi River in Louisiana to prevent seawater from entering the river, a risk if the river level gets too low. This is the fifth time saltwater has had to be prevented from flowing up the river near Myrtle Grove, Louisiana — and the first time something like this has had to be built in consecutive years.

So far, traffic has continued on the river, but this could slow as a further decline is forecast. Barge shipments up the Mississippi River increased to 511,000 tons in the week ended July 8, from 403,000 tons the previous week, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s weekly grain transportation report. Barge prices in St. Louis rose to $10.76 per short ton, up about 11% from the previous week.

When fully loaded, a single barge can transport up to 16 railway wagons or 70 articulated lorries. About 578 million tons of cargo are shipped annually on all inland waterways in the United States, much of it along the Mississippi system.

–With support from Dominic Carey.

© 2023 Bloomberg LP

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