* River down 55 feet (16.8 metres) from 2011 flood level
* Commodities transport costs seen rising as river shrinks
By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Miss., July 26 One year after its waters
swelled to historic proportions, the drought-ravaged lower
Mississippi River now sits so low that barge operators hauling
some $180 billion in goods must lighten their loads for fear of
If water levels drop further on this main artery of the U.S.
waterway system, prices could rise on the raw commodities
commonly shipped by boat - coal, grain, petroleum and steel, to
name a few.
The Mississippi River carries 566 million tons (513,467
tonnes) of freight per year, said Ann McCulloch, spokeswoman for
American Waterways Operators, a national trade association
representing tugboats, tow boats and barges.
"The main thing that they're doing now is voluntarily
reducing the size of their tows ... so they're having to take
more trips to carry their normal volume of commodities,"
McCulloch said. "This will drive up transportation costs if it
continues over a long period of time."
Barges must unload 17 tons (15 tonnes) of cargo for every
one-inch loss of water and 204 tons (185 tonnes) for every
one-foot (30.5 centimetre) loss of draft, said Tom Allegretti,
president of the trade association.
Draft is the vertical distance between the ship's waterline
and the lowest point of its keel.
"When you consider that a typical tow on the upper
Mississippi or Ohio Rivers has 15 barges, a one-foot loss of
draft will decrease the capacity of that tow by 3,000 tons
(2,720 tonnes)," Allegretti said in a statement.
"The tows on the lower Mississippi River are larger,
consisting of 30-45 barges, resulting in decreased capacity of
over 9,000 tons (8,165 tonnes)," he said.
He said it would take 130 semi trucks or 570 rail cars to
haul the freight unloaded by one large barge under those
On Thursday, Kirby Corp, the largest U.S. inland
tank barge operator, said it was adding capacity to its fleet
that carries petrochemicals, gasoline and fertilizer, as it has
been forced to reduce boat-loads because of low river levels.
The company said it has been incurring costs of about half a
million dollars per month since mid-May because of reduced barge
loads and delays.
During the 2011 floods, the Mississippi crested at nearly 48
feet (14.6 metres) above the baseline near Memphis, according to
the National Weather Service.
Now with the U.S. Midwest locked in the most extensive
drought in five decades, the river on Wednesdays had dropped to
7.1 feet (2.16 metres) below the baseline. That is 13 feet (4
metres) below normal for this time of year and 55 feet (16.76
metres) below last year's level.
It could drop another 2.5 feet (76.2 cm) by August, said
Marlene Mickelson, meteorologist for the National Weather
Service, calling that a "worst-case scenario."
The river typically is 6.1 feet (1.86 metres) above the
baseline in July.
While the level has not yet hit the historic low of 10.7
feet (3.26 metres) below baseline, recorded in 1988, it is
unusual to see it so dry this time of year.
"It normally happens in August and September that we're
low," Mickelson said. "We're a month early."
To prevent closures along the Mississippi and keep commerce
flowing, the Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging the
waterway all summer, said its spokesman, Jim Pogue.
Dredging removes the silt that has fallen to the bottom of
the river, which accumulates more when water levels drop.
"When the river is down," Pogue said, "it flows slower and
so the sediment settles and ends up on the bottom."
Lessons from the 1988 drought, which forced week-long
closures along the waterway, prompted changes in the way the
Army Corps of Engineers maintains the river and, as a result,
have lessened the impact of this year's drought, Pogue said.
The Corps has built dikes and other structures that direct
the flow of water in key areas and help the river keep itself
clean, he said.
"As a result we're in much better shape than in 1988," he