Mississippi River Closures Cleared, But Low-Water Troubles Continue

U.S. Coast Guard file image

Published Oct 10, 2022 3:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Barge traffic on the Mississippi has resumed near Stack Island and Memphis, ending a multiday shutdown caused by shallow water and multiple groundings. Dredging was required to clear the Stack Island bottleneck, according to the Coast Guard. 

With traffic resuming, the queue at Stack Island is down to just 770 barges and the Memphis queue has been fully cleared. 

That does not necessarily mean that it will all be smooth sailing from here, industry insiders warned. The Mississippi basin has been heavily affected by a worsening drought, and low water levels have reduced both the size and loading of barge tows on the river. 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, causing barge rates to soar to record highs. Barge operators have reduced tow size from 36 barges to 25 as a precautionary measure, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At least one operator, Ingram, has declared force majeure for some regions of the Lower Mississippi because of the disruption. 

“The situation is fluid and approaching unprecedented territory,” Thomas Russell of Russell Marine Group told the Vicksburg Daily News. “Expect additional barge draft, tow size restrictions, and ongoing grounding delays. Allow for extra barge transit times. Barge ETA’s will be hit or miss until barges are within two days of New Orleans and past the most problematic low water areas.”

The low water has also affected cruise traffic. The newly-commissioned river cruise boat Viking Mississippi was temporarily halted by the barge groundings, and she had to cancel her current two-week voyage from New Orleans to Minneapolis. She offloaded her passengers near Greeneville, Mississippi for onward travel, according to Cruise Hive. 

The unusual river conditions have also exposed the wreck of a wooden merchant vessel from the late 1800s along the New Orleans waterfront. The wooden vessel, identified as the Brookhill, went down in 1915 during a storm. Its frames and much of its planking have remained remarkably intact, and with the water so low, the wreck is even easier to survey now than it was when it was first examined in 1992, state archaeologist Chip McGimsey told local WBRZ. He hopes to use this unusual opportunity to learn more about the boatbuilding practices of the era.