* Rainfall brings relief to drought-drained river
* Barges take on heavier loads of fertilizer
* Army Corps completes first phase of rock removal
By Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, Jan 14 Vessels on the Mississippi River
were gearing up on Monday for the shipping superhighway to fully
reopen within weeks after being crippled by a severe drought as
heavy rains at the weekend and an earlier-than-expected finish
to the rock removal improved prospects for shippers.
Low water on the nation's busiest river has impeded the flow
of billions of dollars worth of cargo like grains, crude oil and
coal over the past two months, with the government clearing
rocks to deepen a critical stretch between Illinois and
"We got an awesome rain over the weekend," said Matt
Zimmerman, vice president and general manager of Midwest Grain
and Barge, which is placing heavier loads of fertilizer on
vessels at the Gulf of Mexico to be delivered to farmers in the
Midwest farm belt.
"We got even more than we were expecting. It was such
widespread rain. It's a difference maker for sure," he said.
Water levels on the river near Cape Girardeau, Missouri,
where Midwest Grain and Barge is based, have increased since
Friday, raising hopes that the waterway will be able to support
heavier traffic into February.
If water levels decline again, companies that have gambled
by filling barges with heavier loads will have to park vessels
on the side of the river until rain comes again.
Barge traffic has been limited for months across a shallow
200-mile (321-km) stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois,
where the Army Corps of Engineers is removing rocks at Thebes,
Illinois, in its largest such undertaking in a quarter century.
The first phase of the project was completed earlier than
expected over the weekend, removing 365 cubic yards (280 cubic
meters) of limestone from the channel near Thebes and deepening
the navigable area by 2 feet (61 cm).
Work to remove additional rock at Thebes and another spot
near Grand Tower, Illinois, could be completed by the end of
January, at which point daily river closures that have snarled
traffic in the area will end.
"The success of the rock removal work, combined with recent
and forecast rain, increases out confidence we will sustain and
adequate channel through this spring," said Maj. Gen. John
Peabody, commander of the Army Corps' Mississippi Valley
And nature seems to be on the side of shippers.
The National Weather Service said that by Thursday the water
level of the Mississippi River at St Louis will be up nearly 2
feet from last Wednesday, bringing it to the highest level in
almost a month.
At Thebes, the water level has jumped almost 9 feet since
A weekend storm dumped 1 to 3 inches of rain along the river
valley from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois, said Drew Lerner,
president of World Weather Inc. That followed another storm late
last week which contributed 1 to 1-1/2 inches of rain and a
spell of unseasonably mild weather that melted snow and also
boosted the river, he said.
Expectations for the river conditions to improve have lead
barge company AEP River Operations to direct 200 empty barges to
move north of Cairo from lower positions on the river.
Clients want to load their barges with coal around the St.
Louis area, and ship it down the Mississippi River for export
from the Gulf of Mexico, said Martin Hettel, senior manager of
bulk sales for AEP.
Nearly 125 miles to the south, in Scott City, Missouri, corn
processor SEMO Milling has started spending more to buy grain
from local farmers in anticipation of river conditions
The company processes corn into grits, flour and other
products to sell to food companies like PepsiCo Inc's
Frito Lay and breweries, such as Anheuser Busch.
Before the forecasts for water levels on the river improved
this week, the mill figured it would be able to buy corn from
local farmers with little competition from grain elevators and
processors that ship grain on the river.
Now, that is not the case.
"Once we realized that, we felt we had to be a little bit
more aggressive," said Dan Fetherston, commercial manager of the
These have been tumultuous times for the nation's energy and
agricultural sectors and others, who rely on the Mississippi
River as a cheaper way to transport an estimated $7 billion in
goods in December and January.
Since late autumn, water levels in the shallow point of
Thebes, Illinois, were expected to plummet to the lowest in more
than a century.
That would have forced the river to effectively close to
commercial shipping traffic, potentially impacting more than
8,000 jobs and halting the movement of 7.2 million tons of
commodities worth $2.8 billion in January, according to lobbyist
groups such as The Waterways Council and American Waterways
Such transportation concerns prompted AGRIServices of
Brunswick in Missouri last month to try to rush barges south,
loaded with grain, out of the heartland and return with loads of
The company and others remain nervous the river may still
close to commerce if conditions worsen.
Slowed river traffic has turned a typical two-week barge
trip from New Orleans to St. Louis into a four- to eight-week
venture, said AGRIServices general manager Bill Jackson.
Each extra day on the river costs the company another $300
per barge - a fee that is steadily eroding the economic benefits
of moving commodities by water, rather than across land by rail,
Jackson said. Two of the company's three docking areas in St.
Louis are inaccessible due to low water. They still cannot get
Even with the recent rains, Jackson said, "I'm not feeling
Jackson has been meeting with railroad carriers in Memphis
to explore an alternative transportation method - just in case
the river does close.