A ride along with Memphis Army Corps: How are they navigating Miss. River historic low levels?

Published: Oct. 28, 2022 at 7:01 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - At last check Friday evening, the National Weather Service (NWS) river gauge at Memphis read -9.87ft., less than a foot from the all-time record low that was set last week.

It’s a concerning sight from Downtown Memphis, how low the river has dropped in recent weeks and will continue to look for the foreseeable future.

However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Memphis District says the river is built, literally, to handle this.

“The channel is in a lot better shape this year than I think it might have been in years past, just because of the huge investments that we’ve made in building structure that maintain the navigation channel,” said Zach Cook.

Cook is the Channel Improvements Project Manager for USACE Memphis, overseeing the short-term and long-term solutions to the historic low levels.

On an exclusive ride on the river Friday, we were shown the Dredge Iowa, a contracted dredger or excavator, deepening the mouth of McKellar Lake, which leads to the Port of Memphis.

That’s a short-term solution, one that’s done annually.

The long-term solutions are structures like river dikes that use the river’s current to naturally deepen its channel.

Cook told us Congress mandates that USACE districts maintain a minimum channel width of 300ft. and a depth of 9ft.

“In most areas, even in this record low, we have about twice that,” said Cook. “We’ve got about a 600-foot-wide channel, even in the tightest areas, and we’re trying to maintain between 12 and 15 feet lows.”

This comes thanks, in part, to recent, historic allocations of funding from Congress, for instance, the bi-partisan infrastructure that was signed almost a year ago.

“We’ve spent a lot of construction dollars on those features that are keeping the navigation channel open,” said Cook.

“When water levels get to a certain stage, that activates certain actions that we have to take,” said Lt. Andrew Lauf with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)

Especially for situations of historic low river levels, the USCG’s collaboration with folks like Cook and the Army Corps is key to ensuring safe river travel for ships.

As the Waterways Management Chief for Sector Lower Mississippi, Lt. Lauf orchestrates the waterways action plan, keeping everyone with a stake in river levels within the loop of communication.

“Working with industry, we come up with a number that provides a good balance that gives us the safety factor we need to make sure maritime transportation is good but also doesn’t impede commerce,” said Lt. Lauf, speaking on recent barge restrictions.

The most recent restriction from USCG came last week, restriction of the barge’s draft (that’s how many feet it becomes submerged in the water) to 9 feet.

During peak grain harvesting season, that means less cargo per tow making it down the river, which could result in long-term price hikes.

In the eyes of Lt. Lauf, less product making it downriver is better than more product running aground on a sandbar.

“Every inch we take away there’s impact,” the USGC Lieutenant said. “These decisions are done on a very careful collaboration with everyone involved to make sure we’re making the right decision.”

“We have daily calls to talk about problem spots within our area of responsibility (AOR), and then we get out and do surveys more frequently than we would normally do if the water were higher,” said Cook.

The surveys Cook speaks of help with the USCG Cutter team aboard the USCGC Kankakee.

The ship and its crew of 16 are responsible for taking these USACE surveys and corroborating them with their own findings to place buoys along the channel.

The buoys signal to ships coming either way on the river where the optimal, deepest spots are for travel

The Kankakee’s AOR is 130 miles of the Mississippi River from Tunica to Osceola, and the low levels of the river has made their job more challenging to get the measurements right.

“I have had to come through one area and turn around and go back to it several hours later just because of the change in the river,” said the Kankakee’s Commanding Officer William Rucker. “The Mississippi River is a living being.”

Since the record-setting low last week, 3 more cutters from other USCG sectors have come to Sector Lower Mississippi to assist the Kankakee in constantly monitoring the channel to give the most accurate buoy placements to ships.

“This miss stays the same,” Rucker said. “ But the amount of time we spend on the river system increases significantly.”

Barges have run aground more frequently, Lt. Lauf says.

All three men anticipate the river will rise once again but for now remain on call, working long hours, to ensure safe passage up and down the river.

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