‘Unprecedented’ flooding idles barges, raises dredging concerns


As rivers in the U.S. heartland return to normal levels, there is rising concern that federal money set aside for dredging won’t go nearly far enough.

The American Waterways Operators (AWO), a trade group representing tug and barge operators, is urging Congress to approve emergency dredging funds. The organization notes that most of the money set aside for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this current fiscal year is already allocated.

Lynn Muench, senior vice president of regional advocacy for the AWO, said that could leave insufficient resources to address siltation and other problems stemming from record-setting floods.

“Part of the next challenge is going to be dredging,” she told Professional Mariner. “Obviously the silt has been moved around and it has to be dredged. The Mississippi, Illinois, Arkansas and Tennessee-Tombigbee all need significantly more dredging than they normally would.”

Just how much more dredging, and how dire the situation is across these vital inland waterways, will be better known once river levels fall. How fast they fall, Muench said, could determine how urgently the dredging is needed and where it is needed most.

“If all of a sudden the Mississippi River falls 3 to 4 feet a day, we are going to need a lot more dredging,” she said in late July. “If it falls more slowly, the river can do some scouring of its own channel and we won’t need as much.”

Pam Vedros, spokeswoman for the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss., said the Rock Island District already has received some supplemental money for dredging after running out in the spring. The district covers 314 miles of the Mississippi River and 268 miles of the Illinois Waterway and their tributaries.

Rivers in some parts of the U.S. started rising last October and continued through the winter and spring, driven by seasonal snowmelt and rainy, wet weather. Vast stretches of the Mississippi and its tributaries became impassable, either because locks were overcome or currents were too dangerous.

Lock closures on the Upper Mississippi River were in place for 98 days, from March 16 through June 23, according to the Army Corps. Parts of the Illinois River were closed for nearly 50 days, and similar restrictions were in place on the Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas rivers at times during the spring months.

The 2018-19 season was the sixth in the past 11 years with moderate to major flooding, Vedros said. The Army Corps has spent more than $150 million since October on flood response operations that included levee patrols, sandbagging and channel dredging. In some sectors, she noted, these activities continued as of early August.

“The duration of this flood event is unprecedented, and because of that drawing comparisons to previous events is quite challenging,” she said in an email. “The Corps will continue its evaluation during our post-flood recovery efforts, and more refined information will be available upon completion.”

Industries affected by the flooding are still working on a detailed accounting of their own losses stemming from the high water. Muench hesitated to place a dollar value on the effects, which damaged crops, flood-control infrastructure, port facilities and vessels. She expects it will be “a very steep number.”

“The cost to the nation is pretty significant,” Muench said.

River closures mean barges can’t pass, so crops harvested by American farmers often can’t get to market. Closures also delay the movement of fertilizers, chemicals and other products. Although barge tows have been running for weeks, the supply chain still hasn’t caught up.

Traditionally, farmers haul crops to co-ops in trucks, from which they are sent by rail to inland ports and loaded onto barges for transit downriver. River closures that kept barges idle disrupted that finely tuned system, said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port in Granite City, Ill., which moves more than $1 billion in goods every year.

“The problem was, for a month you had a major source of transportation — barges — basically tied up because the (Mississippi River) closed,” he said. “Now, there is such a backlog because there is high demand to get the product to the river.”

“Now that the river is open again,” he added, “the bigger hurdle we are facing is trying to match those barges and rail cars up again. It’s kind of like moving a watermelon through a snake.”

Wilmsmeyer expects the system will come back into alignment around Labor Day. He said that agricultural products delayed by high water should still make it to market, albeit later than usual.

By fall, more should be known about the extent of siltation along the Mississippi and its tributaries. It should also become clear by then whether additional money will become available for emergency dredging.

By Professional Mariner Staff