Work ongoing to improve barge traffic on US Mississippi, Ohio rivers as drought conditions persist

Author: Adam Yanelli


HOUSTON (ICIS)--Water levels on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the US Midwest are at record lows, causing delays in barge traffic and forcing industry to use more equipment to move the same amount of cargo.

American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) said in its daily update on Monday that levels on the Mississippi river continue to fall and are at levels not seen since 1988.

“Industry is expecting catastrophic impacts to boat capacity, which will in turn drastically decrease ton/mile productivity for the inland rivers,” ACBL said.

Ronald Zornes, director of corporate operations at Canal Barge Co, said the low water levels are forcing barge shipping firms to put less cargo on each barge and include fewer barges in each tow.

“It is more so that you can not put as many barges in a tow, or load them as heavy,” Zornes said. “So, we are pushing significantly less cargo.”

Zornes said the river levels are as low as he has seen them.

“We would need extended rains over a long period of time to recover,” he said, noting that some rainfall last week did not really make any difference.

He said the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dredging is helpful, but that river bottoms can change drastically and new hot spots can emerge any day.

ACBL said industry has agreed to a 25-barge tow max size as of the end of September, which translates to about a 17-38% reduction in tow size.

USACE is adding additional buoy boats for improved navigational aids and is working two dredges at various locations, which is expected to require periods of complete closure of the river to barges for various periods of time.

Water level measurements used by USACE for the Mississippi river at Memphis, Tennessee, and near methanol plants in Louisiana, and on the Ohio River at Cincinnati, Ohio, show them at near record lows.

The rivers are critical waterways connecting the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

Most US polystyrene (PS) plants are in the Midwest and receive their styrene monomer (SM) feedstock via barges from the Gulf Coast.

Three of the four phthalic anhydride (PA) plants in the US are in Illinois, according to the ICIS Supply and Demand Database, and get their orthoxylene (OX) feedstock from the US Gulf.

In the agricultural markets, river transportation issues could not be arising at a worse time as the crop harvest is advancing quickly and both farmers and end-users rely heavily on the barge system to facilitate movement from the fields to final destination.

Additional reporting by Josh Dillingham, Mark Milam