MEMPHIS (AP) – The Mississippi River's water level keeps dropping, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis said Wednesday it is using survey boats and dredges to maintain safe navigation.
Meanwhile, river barge and tow boat operators are continuing to lose money as they reduce the amount of material they can safely carry on the river.
The National Weather Service said Wednesday that drought has dropped the river's summer level in Memphis to about 13 feet below normal, and it is forecast to fall about 2 1/2 feet more by Aug. 22. That would be more than 55 feet lower than the highest reading taken during last year's near-historic flood.
To deal with the falling river, Army Corps survey boats are teaming up with government and commercial dredges to dig out sand and silt and ensure the navigation channel is deep enough for barges loaded with coal, steel, agricultural products and other goods.
Also, stone dikes are speeding the flow of water through certain areas, causing the river to deposit less sediment in the channel. The Corps is required to provide a minimum navigation channel that is 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide on the lower Mississippi River, according to a news release.
Despite the low levels and a higher number of groundings than typical, Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Gomez said there are no current plans to close sections of the river. Even if the river does fall by another 2 1/2 feet, it would still end up about 1 foot short of the record low set in 1988, when a section of the river was closed for days.
Gomez said the number of groundings has stabilized, and the Coast Guard is working daily with the Army Corps to clear the navigation channel.
"There are certain spots of the river that are building up more silt," Gomez said. "It's a day by day assessment on how the river is looking and just taking action from there."
Still, the low levels from Cairo, Ill. to Vicksburg, Miss. are causing problems for river barges, which haul thousands of tons of material up and down the waterway each day. Some of the loads end up as exports departing from south Louisiana ports.
Barges are now traveling with smaller loads to avoid grounding themselves on the river bottom. The lighter loads mean less revenue for barge operators, who still need to deal with overhead costs such as fuel and labor.
Also, low water at docks and terminals makes it more difficult to load or unload material, as ships have trouble getting close enough to docks.
According to the American Waterways Operators, a trade organization for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, losing one 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 over 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 statement.
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 did say it is significant.
Muench said the industry is trying to keep commerce flowing and is encouraging the Army Corps to do "proactive dredging" to help the barge operators.
"It's not a good situation from an economic perspective, and it's probably not going to get any better based on the forecast," Muench said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the gauge at Memphis had the river at minus-7.1 feet. The "minus" reading does not mean the river is dried up – it's just a measurement based on how the river gauge is designed. Essentially, the reading means the river level is far below normal.
The National Weather Service forecasts call for the river to reach minus-8.3 feet in Memphis by Aug. 1. The extended forecast calls for the river to fall to minus-9.6 feet on the Memphis gauge by Aug. 22.
The record low set in 1988 is minus-10.7 feet.
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