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Water Fight: Drought, Farming, Fracking And The Midwest’s Tense Shipping Situation

Barge workers on the Mississippi River near St. Louis on Dec. 2, 2012 (Credit (via Flickr/pasa47). Low river levels have caused significant issues for the shipping industry on the river.

Politicians across the Midwest are continuing to press the President to declare a state of emergency on the Mississippi River to allow barge traffic to keep flowing.

Every year roughly $180 billion worth of freight makes its way up and down the river.

Now, a record shortage of water on the nation’s major inland waterways is expected to put upward pressure on everything from food items to electricity.


Adam Allington explores the “water-war” occurring on the Midwest’s rivers.

The drought effect

Fresh on the heels of the worst drought in half a century, people whose livelihoods depend on the river were hoping to recoup some small profits later in the fall, but no such luck.

Barges need at least 9 feet of channel to operate.  Standing on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne, Lieutenant Colin Fogarty of the U.S. Coast Guard points out just a few examples of the products that move by St. Louis every day.

“We are looking at a hopper barge right there that’s probably pushing grain,” Fogarty says. “Those are two petro barges right there, and looking at the top, they’re either pushing refined diesel, or some other kind of petro product.”

Fogarty says the Coast Guard has deployed four additional cutter ships running almost 24/7 to help set and reset navigation markers to designate the ever-shrinking shipping channel.

But even though the Coast Guard will make the call on whether the shipping channel in St. Louis will remain open, its ultimately the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who controls the fate of river commerce.

The Corps’ decision to hold back water in reservoirs on the Missouri River is part of a set plan to conserve water for the spring shipping season and recreational use.

A possible ‘economic catastrophe’

But people downstream on the Mississippi need that water right now.

“We estimate that $7 billion in cargo will stop moving on the Mississippi River if a nine-foot channel cannot be maintained through the winter months,” says Craig Philip, CEO of Ingram Barge Company. Ingram Barge is based in Tennessee.

Cutting the flow from dams in South Dakota will reduce water levels in St. Louis by 3 to 4 feet. Realizing that this might effectively kill shipping on the Mississippi over the near term, a group of Midwest politicians including Illinois Senator Dick Durbin are asking President Obama to declare an economic emergency and authorize the Army Corps to reopen the dams.

“This could be an economic catastrophe,” Durbin says.  “Let me be specific, by early this spring we need to be moving chemicals up the Mississippi River from Louisiana, so farmers have them for their spring planting.  Remember, they just went through a tough tough year in Illinois, so many of them are anxious for a comeback.”

Pushback upstream

But upstream states are saying, “not so fast.”  South Dakota, for example, is calling dibs on millions of gallons of water for use in the states oil-fracking boom.

Even Senator Durbin admits that asking the President to settle what amounts to a water-war between states is a dicey prospect.

“Clearly we’re in, maybe a zero-sum situation,” Durbin says. “We may be able to help our commerce downstream, but if we do it at the expense of those communities and states upstream, you can understand, they’re not going to stand by for this and I’m not sure I would either.”

Mother Nature and the marketplace

For the time being, barge operators might be able to limp along with reduced load sizes and smaller shipping lanes, but ultimately if Mother Nature doesn’t sort this problem out, the marketplace will.

“We need rain, that’s the bottom line,” says Major General John Peabody of the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division. “We’ve got to have rain if we’re going to sustain the type of reliable navigation that you’re accustomed to, or we’re going to have to take other measures.”

Peabody says those other measures could include other methods of transportation, such as rail or trucks.

But with the Mississippi River moving roughly 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports and 20 percent of the coal heading to power plants, it’s a cinch that costs to consumers could be headed up, at the same time the river level is heading down.

In early January, the Army Corps plans to help shippers by blasting rock formations from the river bottom near the town of Thebes, Ill.



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