Mississippi River approaching a new record?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 23, 2012

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A Vidalia Dock and Storage Co. tugboat responds to the scene of a barge that got stuck in low waters toward the edge of the Mississippi River near Vidalia Thursday night. The tug was able to push the barge free. The water levels of the river have sunk down to 15.7 feet. The lowest level on record is 13.8 feet.

VIDALIA — For the second time in as many years, the Mississippi River could break record levels, but this year, levels are going in the opposite direction.

The river is only 2 feet away from reaching record low levels, but locals say that threat doesn’t even compare to last year’s flood fights.

On Friday, the river level at Natchez was 15.7 feet. The record low was 13.8 feet on October 1995.

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Since there are no precautionary stages for low water levels, U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Randy Merrick said the main challenge is to keep open channels of communication with industries that navigate the river.

“We’re having conference calls at least once a week with different industries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to just let them know what could happen with the low levels,” Merrick said. “It’s more of a precautionary measure than anything.”

During low levels, Merrick said the amount of cargo a barge can carry is restricted to control their tow depth.

“Obviously, the water is not as deep, so they need to tread less to not get stuck,” Merrick said. “These boaters are extremely professional and participate in all the conference calls to be aware of the risks.”

Lower water depth, also means narrower channels, which can affect traffic on the river, Merrick said.

“The biggest thing is as the water gets lower, obviously the channels are going to get narrower,” Merrick said. “These industries want to keep pushing their normal tow, but we can’t make the channels any bigger, so we have to restrict what they can push.”

Boaters that don’t heed those warnings can wind up stuck in the river, as one barge found out the hard way Thursday evening.

“There was a barge (Thursday night) that was working tows up against the banks and just got stuck,” Merrick said. “Sometimes it happens.”

Luckily for the stuck barge, Vidalia Dock and Storage was just minutes away and helped push it free.

“Sometimes we have to take our boats out there and help them out,” port captain Travis Morace said. “It happens a lot, but this was the first one in a while.”

Two J Ranch, a partner company with Vidalia Dock and Storage that buys and sells rock and other material, is taking the biggest hit from the low river levels, Morace said.

“It’s really not to the point where it’s affecting us yet, except with the rock business because it’s taking longer to get here,” Morace said. “Since the barges can’t tow as much, it delays everything.”

And even with the river expected to reach its lowest point at 14.2 feet on July 7, Morace said those levels don’t pose a severe threat.

“If it gets down to 13 feet, then it’ll start affecting us more,” Morace said. “But even then, we can deal with the low river problems better than the high waters.”

Vidalia Dock and Storage was the only business on the riverfront that did not receive protection from the city during last year’s flood.

Flood insurance paid to renovate the main office building, which took on about 6 inches of water inside. The business lost $60,000 to $75,000 moving heavy machinery and losing regular business.

And across the river in Natchez, one business that also spent big money to fight the flood last year is ecstatic to see such low water levels.

“I am thrilled to death obviously and wish it would stay like this all year,” J.M. Jones owner Lee Jones said. “I get in trouble when I say this sometimes, but I wish the river would dry up and trees would grow in it.”

Even though the site didn’t flood last year, the company lost approximately $1 million in building its own levees and lost revenue.

Jones said his company does a lot of timberwork that requires dry land in order for the tree seedlings to germinate properly.

“In the past 10 years with the high water levels we’ve had, the seeds were dropping into 6 feet of water, and they can’t germinate like that,” Jones said. “This year, we’re hoping for some good germination.”

And while it may affect other Miss-Lou businesses, Jones said he won’t be too upset if the river levels continue to lower.

“It’s much better for our business if it’s dry,” Jones said. “Plus, we needed a break after last year.”