Low water making Mississippi River navigation treacherous

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Sam Lynch, who is in training to be a towboat pilot, used a tricky maneuver to get his boat and the 20 barges it was pushing down the Mississippi River.

He brought the boat into the beginning of a curve, then backed it out a little bit so the current would slowly take the barges downstream and the boat would straighten up behind.

It was all designed to keep the barges safely within the deepest part of the river, which is near historic low levels as the drought that has gripped the nation is making navigation of the formerly wide Mississippi treacherous.

This past week was a frustrating one for crews aboard towboats and for the companies that own them. Up and down the river -- which in Memphis, Tenn., is running about 20 feet below normal levels -- boats towing barges were striking sandbars. The Army Corps of Engineers was dredging in places such as Memphis and Vicksburg, Miss. In Greenville, Miss., about 80 towboats waited to get through as the corps worked to make the river navigable.

Chad Carver, a towboat captain training Mr. Lynch this week, said there are two times that the river is hard to navigate: in a flood and in a drought. Last summer, the Corps of Engineers was blasting out levies to give floodwaters somewhere to go. This summer, the corps is coping with water levels that are dangerously low.

Farther up the Ohio River, which starts in Pittsburgh, a series of dams and locks keep the river navigable and allow a steady supply of barges to move into the Mississippi. The lock-and-dam system on the upper Mississippi also is keeping traffic flowing there, but downstream, where there are no dams, low water levels are playing havoc on navigation and restricting traffic. The low water is expected to affect river traffic until October.

Mr. Carver said the river gauge at Memphis is what most of the pilots and captains on the Mississippi use to judge how the river is running. Normally, Memphis runs between 10 feet and 15 feet. Flood stage there is 34 feet.

On Tuesday, the gauge was at negative 8.7 feet and the National Weather Service predicted it would drop to negative 9.4 feet by today, far below normal.

That doesn't mean there is no water there. River gauges are subjective measures in which a gauge of zero doesn't mean there is zero feet of water, it just means the gauge there was set at zero.

The low water is causing havoc for shipping companies. The Captain Gerald Boggs, a 6,000-horsepower towboat owned by AEP River Operations, was heading down the river because it had to take over a load being towed by the Captain Keith Darling, a towboat that had run into a sandbar near Blytheville, Ark.

Mike Morris, a port captain for the company, said the Darling was too damaged to continue and was towed to Wickliffe, Ky., for repairs. The Boggs had been heading upstream at the time, pushing mostly empty barges Sunday evening, when it took on the Darling's cargo, 20 barges carrying coal, wheat, corn and soybeans, as well as dried distillers grain used as an animal feed.

Normally, the Boggs can push 25 barges, all loaded to a 12-foot draft in the water. With the severe drought across the middle of the country affecting the river, the towboat can push only 20 barges loaded to a 9-foot draft. It means a barge that might normally carry 2,100 tons of product can now carry only 1,500.

Mr. Carver, on the rescue trip down the river, figured the towboat is now moving about 22,000 fewer tons a trip than it would if the river were at a normal level. The missing cargo would fill 220 trucks or 88 train cars.

"It hasn't gotten to 1988 levels yet," said Mike Morris, who was a captain of a towboat during the drought 24 years ago that brought the lowest water levels in modern navigation memory. In 1988, he said, towboats the size of the Boggs were limited to moving 16 barges loaded to just an 8.5-foot draft.

The bigger towboats, which can normally push 40 barges, are now down to 25, he said.

Even the lighter loads can make for some close calls. On Monday, just upstream of Memphis, the soundings from the Boggs showed the boat was in water just a little more than a foot deeper than the draft of the barges.

It's not just the lighter loads that are cutting down on the cargo being carried on the Mississippi River. Last weekend, in Greenville, Miss., the water level was so low that a channel had to be dredged and the Coast Guard had to reset navigation buoys so that boats could get safely through the area. The dredging work backed up 49 boats that were carrying cargo down river toward the Gulf of Mexico and another 32 boats heading upstream.

The backup had Mr. Carver and Captain Scott Stewart considering taking on drinking water in Memphis in case they got stuck on the river, but the jam of boats was easing by Monday and they decided they could continue down the river.

For 29-year-old Mr. Lynch, who was finishing his probationary time as a new towboat pilot, the low water provided him with a floating classroom.

After rounding each bend in the river he would open his three-ring binder filled with a detailed map of the river and take notes on the locations of sand bars that normally are under water.

They were a sight that crews of the Mississippi towboats hope they won't see again for decades.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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