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USSEC Member Russell Marine Group Releases U.S. River Condition Report

USSEC Member, Louisiana-based Russell Marine Group, released a report this week on the condition of U.S. rivers. The Russell Marine Group operates in all ports within the United States and together with their South America partner, Rechlin-Russell Marine Group, they also service all ports within South America. Their report follows:

As 2012 year end draws near, it will be the driest on record for the U.S.    Looking ahead through the first quarter of 2013,the Central Midwest down to the Oklahoma and Texas plains are expected to remain in exceptional drought conditions.  The Ohio River Valley States and eastern edges of the Midwest are expected to get precipitation which is good news for the Lower Mississippi River.

The Upper Mississippi River

The Upper Mississippi River continues to fall.  Although there was some rain in areas of the Midwest last week, it did slow the fall for a short period of time, but the falling trend will continue.  By the 3rd week of December barge drafts are expected to be reduced to 8 ft.  (current max draft is 9 ft)  By the end of December, the water level between St Louis and Cairo will be low enough, without substantial rain, where barge drafts no longer matter.  The push boats, even the medium sized push boats,  will draw too much draft to operate on that section of river.

Barge lines are moving barges out of St Louis into Cairo and areas just north and south of Cairo on the Ohio River and Lower Miss.   Cairo is becoming the barge/tow  hub with expectations of the Lower Miss remaining open.  (more info below)

The Corps of Engineers has awarded 2 contracts for the blasting and removal of the rock pinnacles at Thebes, Il, just north of Cairo on the Upper.  The contractors are moving equipment into the Thebes area and blasting operations have now been moved up to start late December/early January.  The operation is expected to take 40 to 60 days.  There is no schedule yet for any navigation that may still be taking place during the removal period.

Relief to replenish water on the Upper Miss is not encouraging over the next few months.  Forecasts call for below average rain which are usually dry anyway. Precipitation could come in the way of snow that will not immediately help the Upper river in the way of run off until spring.  Also, ground is dry and just waiting to recharge with any form of precipitation. 

The Corps started reducing flows from the Missouri River into the Upper Miss as mandated by law.    The Corps cannot circumvent the law  without either Congress changing the law or obtaining a disaster emergency declaration issued by the President.  We are not yet at a point where anyone seems willing to make that political maneuver and risk moving prematurely.  it remains a wait and see approach.   The Corps does have some reservoirs of water that can be released but any such releases only have a short term effect.   Per the law, the Missouri river can be fully reopened in March.

When the rocks at Thebes are blown and removed, dredging operations can take place.   Dredging can certainly help, but it cannot be considered a fix all if the river system continues to fall out.   
There is talk about reverse flow of water off the Ohio River running up the Upper Miss. River when Upper Miss levels get very low.  However, the reality is not practical, it would take a large amount of Ohio River flow, which is not in the cards, and it would only impact a section of Upper river around Cairo.   Rain in the Midwest remains the answer to this problem on the Upper.  1st quarter forecasts are usually dry with rain levels increasing in March.
The Ohio River Valley did get a lot of rain last week which means a rise on the Lower Miss is coming.   The gauge at Memphis, which has been our reference point since the summer, will rise from its current level of -8 ft to – 2 ft on Dec. 17.  At that time, without rain, it will start to drop again and be at minus -9 ft by end of December. 
During the 1st quarter attention will focus on rain in the Ohio River Valley keeping water levels up on the Ohio River and feeding the Lower Miss.   Long range forecasts do call for improving rain conditions in this area of the country.   The Ohio River is the main source of flow on the Lower Miss.  If forecasts are correct, the Lower Miss, with the help of dredging, should remain open to navigation.   We will probably still experience low water and slow downs with groundings and  a lot of congestion as operations shift mainly to the Lower Miss. The hope is that we can hold on during 1st quarter, which is usually dry, and see improvements as typically wet spring approaches. 
New Orleans Harbor – SWP to Baton Rouge
Water levels in the harbor remain low but barge traffic and ocean vessel traffic remain normal and are expected to remain normal.  The deep south has been getting rain which is feeding the southern part of the Lower Miss.
Mouth of the Arkansas River
Montgomery lock at mouth of Arkansas River is closed to all barge/tow traffic while lock repairs take place.  Scheduled to reopen Dec 21.