CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard said it has closed the Mississippi River near St. Louis to boat and barge traffic on Thursday for the second time this month due to high water and strong currents on the major shipping waterway.
The river - a key transportation artery for shipments of grain, agricultural chemicals, energy products and other commodities - is closed from river mile marker 179 to 184, the Coast Guard said in a news release.
An outright halt to barge traffic through the busy St. Louis harbor, where grain elevators load barges and assemble larger barge tows bound for Gulf Coast export terminals, represents the latest blow for the U.S. agriculture industry already reeling from a nearly year-long trade fight with China.
Barges of fertilizer heading to farms in the northern Midwest were stranded for weeks by a prolonged river closure earlier this spring, sending prices of the critical nutrients higher.
Shipping on other portions of the river system was also impeded due to flooding, USCG said.
A no-wake order was issued for a portion of the Illinois River from mile marker 10 to 80.2, and the Coast Guard encouraged shippers moving southbound freight just downriver from St. Louis harbor to daylight hours only.
High water, caused by excessive rains and particularly heavy snowmelt this spring, increases river currents and can make it difficult for towboats to control the barges they are hauling.
The river woes have slowed the flow of barges moving from Midwest farms to export terminals along the Gulf Coast, where some 60% of all U.S. corn, soy and wheat exit the country.
Cash premiums for corn and soy delivered promptly have spiked as shippers anticipated the river closure and scrambled for near term supplies to fill export orders.
Corn barges loaded this month were bid at a premium of at least 10 cents per bushel premium over those loaded next month, and May soybean barges were at a 15 cent premium, grain traders said.
The Coast Guard said it would lift the restrictions once river conditions improve, but did not forecast when that might be.
The river gauge at St. Louis is predicted to crest at 42 feet on Monday, within 8 feet of the record crest in 1993, according the to latest National Weather Service forecast. A steady decline follows, with the river dipping below the 38-foot mark, a level that normally triggers a closure, by June 1.
Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Susan Thomas and Richard Chang