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Not-So Mighty Mississippi: Weather's Whims Determine How Well Barge Traffic Rolls on River

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began using heavy equipment to remove nearly 900 cubic yards of limestone from the navigation channel at Thebes in Alexander County in December.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The Army Corps of Engineers blew up part of a levee in 2011 to divert rising Mississippi River floodwaters away from Cairo. Now, in early 2013, Corps engineers find themselves in completely opposite circumstances, cautiously taking measures to ensure that commercial shipping can continue as water levels drop. 


Recent severe drought conditions that destroyed crops across Illinois also threaten to shut down barge traffic on the country’s most important waterway for commercial shipping. 

Stretching more than 2,300 miles from Minnesota through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is the largest river in North America, and a main conduit for commodities shipping in the central United States. Transport companies use the river daily to ship goods such as corn, soybeans, grain, fertilizer, coal, steel, sand and concrete in bulk much more cheaply than by truck or train. A single barge on the river can carry the same amount of a commodity, such as wheat, as 70 semi-trailer trucks. In normal conditions, a single towboat can pull a series of 25 to 40 barges up and down the river. 

The last time low water levels put a temporary stop to commercial traffic on the Mississippi was in 1988. The shipping industry lost $1 billion, according to news reports at the time. It’s estimated that $180 billion worth of commodities is transported on the river per year, varying from month to month. This past December and January, the national trade association American Waterways Operators was concerned that $7 billion in commerce would be threatened with a possible shutdown.

“It’s considered a hidden industry because so many people don’t realize how much is moved on this,” says Dennis Wilmsmeyer, president of Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals Inc.

Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, says the Mississippi River offers Illinois farmers a clear advantage as a less expensive avenue to transport crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat to New Orleans for export to foreign markets. 

“River transportation is by far the most energy efficient, has the most benign effect on the environment and is least expensive from a tonnage standpoint,” he says. “Having an efficient transportation system to move that product … to customers throughout the world is paramount to our ability to compete.”

A halt or reduction in shipping has an effect on the nation’s economy as a whole. Increased costs for shipping commodities reach consumers through higher prices for food, building materials and other goods. The problem “touches many more people than just farmers,” says Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who chairs the state’s Mississippi River Coordinating Council. Though everyday consumers may not use products, such as coal, transported on the river, rising shipping prices could affect them in other ways. “They aren’t going to see their electric bill go up tomorrow, but over time, it would affect the cost of electricity,” Weinzierl says.

If shipping on the river stopped, many Illinoisans could be out of work. After Louisiana, Illinois is one of the states most economically dependent on Mississippi River shipping. According to the American Waterways Operators, more than 6,600 jobs and $50 million in wages in Illinois depend on river traffic. 

“This is critically important to the economies of the Midwest and the nation,” says U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. 

The Mississippi is the main conduit for shipping commodities in the central United States. Barge transport is cheaper than train or truck.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
The Mississippi is the main conduit for shipping commodities in the central United States. Barge transport is cheaper than train or truck.

Providing stable conditions for shipping on the Mississippi is a federal multiagency task. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the river’s depth. The Coast Guard directs all traffic and has the power to limit or shut down shipping if conditions worsen.

The greatest area of concern on the river is the 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and Cairo. In the 1930s, a lock and dam system was built from Minnesota to near St. Louis to control the Mississippi’s flow to the point where the Illinois and Missouri rivers join it. South of the lock and dam system, the river becomes more open and is now shallower and narrower because of the drought. The river recovers south of Cairo, where it is replenished by the Ohio River, which flows from a less drought-stricken area in the eastern United States.

Acute drought affecting shipping is a big change for an area threatened with record flooding less than two years ago. Corps spokesman Bob Anderson says it is unusual to go from floods to drought conditions in such a short time. “I don’t think it’s ever been that dramatic [of a] change from one year to the next.” However, the Coast Guard and the Corps say they are equipped to respond. “Dealing with environmental challenges is part of the job description,” says Coast Guard Capt. Byron Black.

Vernon Knapp, a hydrologist at the Illinois State Water Survey, says current conditions on the massive river “speak to the extensiveness of the drought that’s ongoing.” 

The Corps of Engineers requires the river to have a minimum 9-foot depth and be 300 feet wide for it to remain open to commercial barges and towboats. To ensure this, it has been digging out sediment at the river’s bottom, a practice called dredging, since summer to deepen selected spots on the St. Louis-Cairo stretch. 

Between St. Louis and Cairo, the Corps of Engineers measures the river at 18 different points. For the low water conditions, they watch two gauges in particular, at St. Louis and Thebes, in Alexander County. Thebes is a focal point for the Corps because the river is shallower and the riverbed turns from sand to rock. In lower water levels, jutting rocks present a risk to commercial ships in the channel. “It’s a whole different matter,” Corps spokesman Mike Petersen says. “It became the controlling choke point on the middle Mississippi River.”

Gauges measure the river’s surface level in relation to a fixed point, rather than the actual depth. Measuring the actual depth is unreliable because most parts of the river have sand at the bottom. “It’s constantly moving,” Petersen says, so depths vary when the sand shifts. The National Weather Service projects how much river levels rise and fall on the Mississippi as snowmelt and rain move through its system. Levels fluctuate, rising, for instance, from 5 feet to 10 feet on the Thebes gauge between January 29 and February 3 and expected to level off at 8 feet a couple of weeks later. A reading of 2 feet or less at the Thebes gauge means shipping is in danger. 

To deepen the channel and remove dangerous rocks, the Corps is blasting various points on the riverbed at Thebes and another location 30 miles north at Grand Tower in Jackson County. Black says the goal is to “stay ahead of this to the maximum extent we can.” Shippers are working with the Coast Guard to ensure that traffic on the Mississippi keeps moving.

“We are all in the same boat together. They realize that if they try to … push the safety envelope, everyone would be affected,” Black says. The level of cooperation, he says, is the highest he has seen in a 29-year career stationed across the United States.

The Coast Guard coordinated with shippers at Thebes to allow ships to back up there while the Corps dredged 18 hours a day in December and January at an estimated cost of $3 million a month. Shippers were already voluntarily lightening loads and pulling only 15 barges at a time in the narrower channel between St. Louis and Cairo. Smaller loads and delays are increasing costs. “A towboat that is waiting any time is expensive for industry,” Black says. 

Shipping industry officials are encouraging the Corps to continue dredging, but they also want water released from the Missouri River into the Mississippi.

Officials are monitoring the situation weekly. The Corps of Engineers is confident a full shutdown can be averted for the time being, but Ann McCulloch from American Waterways Operators says it is “not a guarantee.” For the shipping industry, there has been a “great deal of uncertainty over the past several months,” she says. McCulloch says essential issues on the river should be addressed proactively and collectively across multiple states. She says interested parties needed to “get to the point [where] we are making decisions on a system basis … instead of reacting to Mother Nature.”

The shipping industry is concerned that lightening barges past a certain point if waters get shallower would make shipping unprofitable. “There’s a lot at stake if the system is not properly maintained,” McCulloch says.

Unlike dredging, options for using the Missouri River to feed low areas of the Mississippi are not as simple. The Missouri River is experiencing its own low water levels. A national drought monitor run by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln classifies several areas in states on the Missouri Basin, such as South Dakota and Nebraska, as being in “exceptional” drought, its worst category. And states on the river there are sensitive to their own water needs.

The Corps of Engineers adheres to a set of rules for usage of Missouri River water, called its Master Water Control Manual. The plan allows only a limited amount of water from the Missouri to replenish the Mississippi. By law, since the 1940s, the Missouri’s water is set aside for uses such as navigation, drinking, recreation and hydropower. 

Corps officials have some other options, and they released water from Carlyle Lake in Illinois to help boost the river. But drawing a more significant amount from the Missouri would require formal approval from the White House or Congress. Durbin says that President Barack Obama’s administration has indicated that “all options are on the table” to avoid a shutdown of traffic on the Mississippi, including use of the Missouri. But as of press time, no changes to the rules had been made. Durbin says, “We have lucked out so far” by keeping shipping moving without more water from the Missouri. 

Corps officials say it is more than luck. “It’s a lot of hard work and people spending countless hours on the river. That’s what’s been keeping the river open,” Petersen says. He says the Corps benefited from its experience in the 2011 floods on the Mississippi in southern Illinois. Dams and levees were fully in use and allowed the Corps to see the system at work. Advanced surveying techniques allowed engineers to more accurately pinpoint areas of concern for low water conditions. Leftover appropriation money from Congress allowed Corps employees to begin to address issues sooner when they first suspected possible drought conditions last August. “We were able to do a lot of dredging last year thanks to flood recovery [money],” Petersen says.

With water from Lake Carlyle and recent rains, Mississippi River levels rose somewhat in January, and the Corps has completed the first phase of rock removal at Thebes. Two feet have been added to the depth of the river. But ultimately, the river needs more rain. State climatologist Jim Angel says he expects Illinois to recover from the drought. Because the state historically has more rain, it is in a better position to recover than states like Texas and Oklahoma, which are experiencing multiyear droughts. Illinois typically experiences “single-year events,” Angel says. In recent history, drought affected river levels in 1988 and 2005. “It is something we would typically see, regardless of the climate change issue,” he says. 

Long-term trends are difficult to predict, but state water experts say the drought recovery process will take time. Barring a massive deluge of rain, Knapp says, “it’s not something that happens overnight.”

Some officials say the experience has been a wakeup call. Simon says it is important for the state to be prepared in a worst-case scenario if drought conditions continue. “We need to have policies that are calculated to make the best of a bad situation,” she says. 

Concerning the short-term weather swings the river has recently seen, she says, “I think it’s fair we ought to be taking into consideration weather extremes in a way maybe we haven’t before.”

Petersen says: “It’s about preparing for future low water. … When we see low waters like this again, we want the best, most reliable channel we can [have]. We have a long history with this river, but we are always learning from it.”

The future is wait-and-see for shipping officials. “Hopefully, this is just an anomaly year, and we won’t have this again,” Wilmsmeyer says. “The concern is really: What’s 2013 going to bring for everybody?” 

Illinois Issues, March 2013

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