Barges back up on Arkansas River

Shippers contend with delays caused by low water level

A two-barge tow navigates around sandbars on a low Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and Reserve, La., in Livingston Parish in September. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Barge congestion near Montgomery Point Lock and Dam is causing delays for some shipping companies and it could take a week or more for traffic to loosen up.

The lock on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is the closest to the historically low Mississippi River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended a 7-foot draft restriction for the river below the lock, down from the normal guaranteed 9-foot draft restriction.

"This is not something we've ever seen before," said Pete Ciaramitaro, director of operations for Southern-Devall marine transportation company, which operates on the Arkansas and the Mississippi. Ciaramitaro has been in the shipping industry for almost 50 years.

Southern-Devall has a fleet of 70 boats and mostly moves chemicals, such as liquid fertilizer.

"We have three tows waiting to get through this lock and one's been there since [last] Friday when this started, one just got there this morning and one is arriving now, and we have another one up in Oklahoma up at Catoosa that will be starting that way and probably arrive Tuesday," Ciaramitaro said.

River levels got so low so suddenly, that Ciaramitaro said there wasn't much time to prepare for the draft restriction.

"We can load our barges at 7 feet but it doesn't do us any good because our boats are heavier than that," Ciaramitaro said.

River commerce could be flowing more naturally by the middle or end of next week as the Corps works to clean out high spots downstream from Montgomery Point, said Marty Shell, port terminal operator for Five Rivers Distribution and Arkansas Waterways Commission member.

"I'm hoping we'll be able to start pushing some of this a little bit quicker once they get some of those high spots addressed. We can start pushing some of these empties and getting the queue [moving] and the queue is barges southbound, barges northbound that are kind of all congregated up and that area is going to be congested," Shell said.

"From the Port of Catoosa all the way down, navigation is fine, we've just hit a bottleneck right there on the Mississippi from Montgomery Point Lock and Dam."

The U.S. Coast Guard issued a low water safety advisory for a portion of the lower Mississippi River, recommending drafts no greater than 9.6 feet, according to a notice to local mariners on Wednesday.

Barges can usually draft to 12 feet on the Mississippi River. "For every foot of draft space, it's another additional 300 tons, so that's to give you an idea of the significance of how they would have to widen the loads on the barges and either store product or find alternative shipping methods," Arkansas Waterways Commission Executive Director Cassandra Caldwell said.

A 9-foot barge with cargo weighs approximately 1,200 tons, Caldwell said, so adhering to a 7-foot draft restriction instead of the usual 9-foot draft could mean a reduction of roughly 600 tons of cargo.

Caldwell said barge freight rates are high now and were also high around this time a year ago.

Shell said a normal barge freight rate from New Orleans to Van Buren would be between $16 and $20 per ton. "I would say that rate is probably double right now and it's probably just due to supply and demand," Shell said, adding higher than usual barge freight rates are not uncommon around fall harvest season.

Barge transportation is normally an efficient and cost-effective method to transport goods, but it becomes less competitive with trucking and the rail system when you have drought conditions, Caldwell said.

"It will be really difficult to know the full economic impact until after recovery from this but we know that typically the tows are moving 8 to 12 barges at a time, so they have been significantly cut to maybe one [towing] three barges at a time, so they would be moving a quarter of what they normally move."

Shell said the draft restrictions were put into place so quickly, "that most of the barges have already been loaded and are sitting down in rows on the Mississippi ready to come up the Arkansas. So most of the barges are sitting in a 9-foot draft. We're not going to be able to go down there and take some product off to lighten them; it's better just to hold tight for five or six or seven days versus trying to lighten barges and move them up past that point," Shell said.

Farmers putting crops onto the Arkansas River in Pine Bluff and Pendleton will have a small delay getting to the Gulf of Mexico and a delay in bringing steel products, feed and fertilizer products upriver, though many customers will keep a 30- to 45-day inventory on hand, Shell said.

"The conditions are as bad if not worse than last year; however, [shipping companies] were more prepared this year compared to last year," Caldwell said.

"It was a surprise and nobody was ready for that, and I think that they learned some lessons and got some alternative methods put into place to ship things, and I know the Corps has been very responsive. They've had dredges on site, ready to go in the trouble spots, so it's not taking as long to get those trouble spots cleared out to where they can at least get down even though they're having to load lighter."

Barge tonnage through September is very similar to a year ago, and 2023 is shaping up to be a good year overall, tonnage-wise, said David Yarbrough, executive director of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.