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Mississippi River water levels slow the 'transportation puzzle'

As barges transport goods like soybeans, corn, fertilizer and metals regularly between Minneapolis and New Orleans, the previously stalled barges in the lower Mississippi River force “a time delay issue” while barges are towed and portions are dredged.

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A ferry heads through Winona along the Mississippi River on Oct. 15, 2022.
Rebecca Mitchell / Post Bulletin
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WINONA — The low water levels downstream on the Mississippi River bring headlines of unseen sights, more supply chain woes and stopped barge traffic . While the story differs in Minnesota, both northbound and southbound barge traffic has slowed.

“Some of the concerns we have is fertilizer for next year’s crop, inputs coming back and then common goods that travel up and down the river as well, salt for roads in the winter time, cement, you know many of the different things that come up the river. It’s a concern … both ways,” said Brad Hovel, owner of Hovel Farms in Cannon Falls and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association board member and secretary.

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Brad Hovel
Contributed

Unlike the dry conditions helping farmers in harvesting , this drought-related issue creates problems across the supply chain.

Barges transport goods such as soybeans, corn, fertilizer and metals regularly between Minneapolis and New Orleans. The previously stalled barges in the lower Mississippi force “a time delay issue” while barges are towed and portions of the river are dredged, said Sam Mathiowetz, acting chief of locks and dams for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District. Southbound barges have reduced tonnage loads by 20-27% with the number of barges per tow reduced by 17-38%, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Grain Transportation Report .

The St. Paul district's locks and dams, which stretch from Minneapolis to Guttenberg, Iowa, allow the Corps of Engineers to maintain specific water elevations. In the St. Louis district, the water sets the elevation.

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“The area of concerns are in the St. Louis district and Vicksburg district,” said Elizabeth Nelsen, Corps of Engineers St. Paul district water management section chief. “Luckily up here we have the locks and dams, and the locks and dams were built specifically for low-water so that we can maintain that 9-foot channel for the barges. So, we are seeing lower flows than normal, but because of the lock and dam system we are not in the dire constraints that they are down south where they don’t have locks and dams to help them keep the water levels steady enough for barges.”

In lower water level situations, the Hastings, Minnesota, lock remains at an elevation of 687.2 feet, according to Nelsen.

“With those movable gates we are able to directly impact the water elevation at our dam and then that backs up further,” Nelsen explained. “In low-water times like we’re at right now, the pools between the locks are very flat.”

For the Twin Cities, September 2022 topped the National Weather Service’s list of driest ever on record with areas rated for severe and extreme drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. Rochester had 0.63 inches of rain for the month with continued abnormally dry conditions.

“It would have to be a pretty severe drought before we would be worried,” Nelsen said about the St. Paul District river system.

In September and October, barge traffic usually brings a “slight uptick,” Mathiowetz said, as grains are harvested and transported to grain storage or river terminals. The port of Winona had 83 barges in August and 50 barges in September 2022 compared to 76 in August and 84 in September 2021.

“In the fall you’re also going to see road salt, more fertilizer; those vendors will start stocking up in preparation for the spring so they don’t have to wait on potential impacts there,” Mathiowetz noted.

In the agricultural “transportation puzzle” of river barges, trains and trucks, Hovel said, “We need elasticity in transportation.”

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Situations such as the railway strike and the low water levels on the Mississippi highlight this need, he added. According to the USDA, the barge rates traveling from the Twin Cities down the Mississippi have increased from $581.30 in August to $1,667.36 in October.

“It’s just something that we’re going to have to keep our eye on, and there’s really nothing we can do about the low water levels at the moment,” Hovel said. “We’re just trying to monitor the situation as best we can and see how that goes.”

While long-term forecasts and impacts on the Mississippi River remain questions, the need for more transportation options and animal agriculture is clear. Hovel said years of work with MSGA have led to delivering soybeans out of the port of Duluth, and having a “vibrant” animal agriculture sector in Minnesota would help decrease transportation.

“Every time we can add another little key or cog to the transportation puzzle, it can always help to make sure we’re not depending on just the river, just the rail,” Hovel said.

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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