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Mississippi River levels stream concern

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 10:24 a.m. CST

The ongoing surge of mid-January warmth across the upper Midwest may buoy more than the spirits of those who detest winter weather.

The warmer-than-normal temperatures also may keep one of the country’s most vital transportation links open for a few more weeks.

For weeks, representatives of shipping companies and their customers have closely monitored water levels on the Mississippi River.

Drought throughout the river’s watershed in the Midwest and Great Plains in 2012 has produced river levels that are low enough to prompt the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to warn that the river soon could become unnavigable to most barge traffic.

Specifically, the USACE warned they could reduce the allowable drafts produced by the boats that tow the barges up and down the Mississippi from nine feet to eight feet. Most towboats require a nine-foot draft to operate properly.

Should barge traffic be interrupted, the consequences would be felt in several sectors of the region’s economy because river barges are used to transport a range of commodities and raw materials, such as coal and steel, to and from the sea ports at the Gulf of Mexico.

Agriculture – a key economic sector in Kane County and elsewhere in Illinois – would be among those affected by barge traffic interruptions, said Joe White, who farms near Elburn and serves as president of the Kane County Farm Bureau.

White noted that much of the corn and soybeans grown by local farmers typically are shipped by barge down the Mississippi River to New Orleans for export.

At the same time, local farmers rely heavily on the river for transport of other products they need, such as fertilizer, White said.

Should river transportation be shut down or restricted, it would push much of the burden for shipping grain for export and the imported input products onto alternative land-based transportation modes, such as rail or trucks.

“And that is more expensive,” White said.

He noted that some farmers had secured early quotes for ground transportation, indicating their fertilizer costs could increase by as much as 25 percent versus barge.

“Ultimately, someone has to pay the price, and it would be reflected in the bid we receive,” White said.

However, recent developments have spurred optimism that the Mississippi River could remain open for several weeks longer than previously believed.

Scott Meyer, a grain merchandiser for Sycamore-based agricultural services company Elburn Cooperative, said efforts undertaken by the USACE to deepen a key bottleneck on the Mississippi near St. Louis, coupled with some recent precipitation and snowmelt in Iowa and Wisconsin, have lifted hopes for continued commerce along the Mississippi.

“The river has remained open a lot longer than we thought, and it looks like we’re going to be able to maintain that,” Meyer said.

He said barges remain available through March, leading those who want to ship grain to believe that shippers expect the river to remain open at least until the early spring, when spring rains are hoped to restore river levels and soil moisture, alike.

Meyer noted local farmers also have been helped by high prices for corn, which have slowed the amount of Midwestern corn heading to the sea for export, overall.

Meyer said 90 percent of the Mississippi barges laden with grain are carrying soybeans at this time.

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