Barge Groundings Create Headaches on the Lower Mississippi

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Published Oct 4, 2022 9:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

With the Mississippi River at its 8th-lowest water level on record, grounding risk has increased for barge operators, and multiple groundings have been reported on the Lower Mississippi

On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard relayed reports of new barge groundings near Stack Island, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, and waterway closures are in effect around both sites. Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River has reported eight groundings in the past week due to low water levels.

"Due to low water levels on the Lower Mississippi River, we have seen an increase in commercial vessel groundings," said Capt. Eric Carrero, Director of Western Rivers and Waterways at Coast Guard District Eight. "In response, the Coast Guard established a Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit with our federal, state, local, and maritime industry partners to facilitate safe navigation and the continued flow of commerce."

The unit has been set up to coordinate waterway recovery, track the status of the waterway, recommend courses of action to the captain-of-the-port and provide a forum for maritime stakeholders.

A prolonged drought has reduced water depth in the Mississippi to the lowest level in a decade and the eighth-lowest level on record. All-time low water records may soon be set at several smaller Mississippi River ports, including Osceola, Arkansas, according to the National Weather Service.

The drought comes just as harvest time arrives for the region's farmers, and low water levels are  restricting the barging operations that move agricultural products downriver to market. Barge operators have reduced tow size from 36 barges to 25 as a precautionary measure, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With capacity reduced, barge rates are soaring to record highs. Availability of service is even a challenge for some areas: some loading terminals have had to cease operations altogether because there is too little water depth alongside the pier, according to Progressive Farmer.

The forecast for the Lower Mississippi drainage predicts a prolonged dry spell to come, and the restrictions on commerce will likely continue.