The fall of the mighty Mississippi: river levels affect industry differently in Miss-LouPublished 12:07am Saturday, August 25, 2012
BY ROD GUAJARDO & VERSHAL HOGAN
The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — The rise and fall of the Mississippi River — which these days is mostly fall — can be a boon or a bust for those who draw their livelihood from the waterway.
On Friday, the Mississippi River levels at Natchez was at 8.6 feet, according to the National Weather Service. An extended forecast shows river levels continuing to drop, reaching 7 feet by September.
U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Randy Merrick said his crews have marked the channel at Natchez at 11 feet and are constantly checking on and moving buoys in further from the shore to help direct boat traffic.
“With the shallow water, sometimes the buoys get taken out a little bit more, so we basically just go out and patrol to make sure they’re in the right spots,” Merrick said. “The big thing for us right now is to just be out on the river more and making sure we keep a tighter grip on everything.”
As the water levels continue to fall, so do restrictions on the amount of cargo a barge can carry. Those restrictions control the tow depth of the boats and barges to ensure they don’t get stuck on the river, Merrick said.
Currently barges are restricted to a tow depth of 9 feet, which is 3 feet less than the normal 12-foot restriction.
Merrick said that 3-feet reduction can equal approximately 600 tons of cargo for a typical barge.
“If you multiply that by 15, which is what those big tugboats push, that’s a significant loss,” Merrick said.
And that loss has been felt by Vidalia Dock and Storage Port Captain Travis Morace’s other business, Two J Ranch, a partner company with Vidalia Dock and Storage that buys and sells rock and other material.
The tow restriction coupled with the traffic restrictions from the closure of the river in Greenville is leaving Morace and Two J Ranch customers hoping the river starts rising soon.
“We had a boat that got held up in (Greenville) when it shut down, and they didn’t show up here until late,” Morace said. “Luckily we have understanding customers.”
While the low river levels may affect the time it takes for barges to move up and down the river, it hasn’t slowed down business at the Natchez-Adams County Port, Port Director Anthony Hauer said.
“If anything, it has spurred some business,” he said. “It’s very typical of a low-water stage for that to happen.”
That’s because the Natchez port is built on the river channel itself, while other ports along the river are built in egress areas, Hauer said. When the water levels drop below a certain point, if dredging hasn’t already been done to address natural silting in the non-channel ports, they are effectively closed.
And Adams County’s economic recruiters are sure to let potential industries know that the port isn’t going to close due to low water, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said.
“Our port has never been out of service, with the exception of one dock last year — the liquid loading dock — during the 500-year flood,” Russ said.
“That was the only time any of our docks have gone out of service for high or low water, so we are very fortunate in our geography of where our port is located.”
Being in the business of transportation on the Mississippi River is about as predictable as the river itself, which is why Morace can only watch as the river levels on the Mississippi continue to drop to near record lows.
“We just have to sit back and deal with the river levels one day at a time,” Morace said. “It’s just amazing how we’ve gone from one extreme of high water levels to the complete opposite of low levels within a year.”
Dock and Storage specializes in towing empty barges up and down the river to be filled by ports or grain elevators.
The towboats main voyages are to the Natchez Port, Bunge Grain in Vidalia and Goldman Grain in Waterproof.
Once filled to the brim with the company’s product the towboats take the full barges and tie them to a fleet waiting to be picked up by a tugboat that will take them to its final destination.
Until recently, the low water levels were mainly just an inconvenience for the towboats, Morace said, as they would often have to maneuver around unexposed sandbars to avoid getting stuck in the river or help free stuck barges by pushing or pulling them off sandbars.
But when the river was forced to close in the Greenville area after a barge ran aground in low waters caused by an extensive drought, Morace said other problems on the river became more obvious.
“We went without any of those boats being able to come pick up barges for several days, and now we’re super crowded,” Morace said. “And now they’re coming down in droves, so it poses some traffic problems.
“The channel is so narrow that you can’t navigate the river the same way.”