The 2012 drought has brought Mississippi River water levels to near-historic lows, so barges are lightening their loads to stay afloat. If the river drought worsens, economists and industry experts say trucks and train cars will have to step in to deliver loads of grain, coal and other commodities. While the extra business might be welcome for trucking and rail operators, higher transportation costs for crops, coal, oil and gas will be felt in consumers’ wallets.
According to American Farm Bureau Federation economist Veronica Nigh, the Mississippi barges carry 60 percent of U.S. corn for export and 45 percent of soybeans. Twenty percent of the nation’s gas and coal is shipped on the waterway. Annually, it adds up to 500 million tons of commodities with a value of $180 billion.
To keep moving in the low water, barges are being loaded to 70 to 75 percent of normal capacity. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, a typical barge can carry as much dry cargo as 16 rail cars or 70 semi trailer trucks. For every one-inch loss of water in the Mississippi, each barge is unable to move 17 tons of cargo, according to American Waterways Operators, a trade association for the barge industry.
Tom Allegretti, President and CEO of American Waterways Operators, described the impact of the drought for a typical barge tow on the lower Mississippi River.
“The tows on the lower Mississippi River are larger, consisting of 30-45 barges, resulting in decreased capacity of over 9,000 tons,” he said. “This would be the equivalent of adding 130 tractor-trailer trucks to the highways or 570 rail cars on the rail system for just one large tow.”
AFBF economist Nigh, in an interview with her agency, said 4 percent of every food dollar is spent on transportation, and prices will go up if food has to be delivered through more expensive means.
“The cost savings that occur because we’re able to move product up and down the Mississippi River and other vital waterways saves consumers money, because they pay less for their products. It helps farmers. It helps businesses stay competitive in an export market. One barge can move as much tonnage as 70 trucks,. So think about the number, the wear and tear on the roadways, and … air pollution, all of those things along the line, that’s just going to push that additional traffic into those venues,” Nigh said.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is working to keep traffic flowing, and harbors operating by dredging silt from the bottom of the river around the clock.
But if the water level keeps dropping, and shipping comes to a standstill, American Waterways Operators, in a press release, said to expect trucking congestion on U.S. highways.
“A diversion of current waterway freight traffic to the nation’s highways would add 1,160 combination trucks (to the current 874) per day per lane on a typical rural interstate. The cost to ship goods via rail would also likely increase.”