Low Miss. River levels raise long-term economic concerns

Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 5:16 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Mississippi River’s water level in Memphis is expected to continue on a downward trend.

That expectation comes from the National Weather Service.

Their river gauge in the Bluff City read around minus -7.86 feet, the eighth lowest point in recorded history, but over the next two weeks they predict that number to continue to drop.

Shipping and logistics experts say they’re expecting to see significant impacts that will subsequently affect consumers.

To keep from running into newly visible sandbars, shipping companies have agreed to lower tows from 36 to 25 barges, and the drop in barges means a rise in prices - everything from grain to fuel.

“That’s one of the issues about waterway transportation,” Martin Lipinski, the former Director of University of Memphis’s Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute, said. “It’s a great, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly mode of transportation, but you’re at sort of the whims of mother nature.”

The lowest the river ever reached was -10.7 feet in 1988.

Lipinski says the current level is reminiscent of that.

“We at the university helped the Corps of Engineers monitor some of the impacts, and at that time they were pretty severe,” he said.

He says the main impact is on grain prices.

It’s currently harvesting season, and slowing the grain that goes from the river to across the country will result in price fluctuations.

“You can’t maximize your freight. You can’t maximize your operation. It just creates problems all the way across your process,” Cody Brown, Director of Shipping and Logistics for Big River Steel, said.

Brown says their dock is dealing with lower freight amounts, making it difficult to manage cost perspectives for vendors and consumers.

“Everything is slower now. We desperately need rain,” Brown said.

There are of course alternatives to getting product where they need to go, by road or rail, but Lipinski says that’s easier said than done.

“Many, many semis full of grain equals just one barge. Just imagine the added congestion and the safety issues of having all those trucks on the road,” Lipinski said.

The Army Corps of Engineers says they’re continuing to monitor river levels and problematic areas that may need dredging - that’s digging in the channel to help with depth.

Their dredger, the Dredge Hurley, is currently in Louisiana helping with another dredge project, and their was no confirmation if dredging companies are being contracted to help deepen the river for the time being.

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