Lower Mississippi Closed in Two Places Due to Low Water and Groundings

USCG file image

Published Oct 6, 2022 7:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

Amidst an ongoing drought, the U.S. Coast Guard has temporarily closed the Mississippi River near Stack Island, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee because of dangerously low water. As of Wednesday, well over 100 towboats and barge tows were awaiting further dvelopments at both location, according to the agency. 

"The USCG is actively engaged with [USACE] and river industry partners for survey operations to determine earliest and safest reopening," the Coast Guard said in a statement. Dredging is under way at Stack Island and the hope is to reopen this particular stretch by Friday.

A low water advisory is in effect for a 550-mile stretch of the Lower Mississippi from mile markers 869 to 303, and drafts are limited to 9.5 feet. The Coast Guard has reminded towboat masters of their obligation to create a voyage plan and navigate with due diligence, with a particular eye to draft, under keel clearance and maneuvering room.

The river's water level is currently the 8th-lowest on record, and some riverine ports are expected to see record lows in the weeks ahead. At least eight groundings have been reported in recent weeks, and the Coast Guard has been working with the Corps of Engineers to refloat stuck barges and dredge trouble spots. 

Ingram, one of the largest tug and barge operators on the river, said Thursday that it has formally declared force majeure due to low water in a portion of its service range. The decision affects certain operations downriver of Baton Rouge, the company told Reuters. 

“About 39 percent fewer barges have made it down river to the ports below the [Mississippi River Bridge] so in other words from Baton Rouge all the way to the mouth. Those barges that have made it are short loaded,” said Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, speaking to Louisiana Radio Network. Competitor American Commercial Barge Line believes that this is the toughest low-water navigation season on the river since 1988, according to Bloomberg.

The shutdowns are being felt most acutely in the agriculture sector, as farmers are gearing up for the fall harvest and need barge capacity to get their crops to market. But it is also affecting a range of other commodities, like oil, petroleum products, coal steel, and even river cruise ships and ferries.