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Rollin’ down the river ... well, maybe

Editor’s note: This is the first segment in a series on barge traffic and the businesses it affects on the Illinois River.

The interest in barge traffic along the Illinois River is on high alert. Last week, Illinois lawmakers Sen. Dick Durbin and newly-elected Congressman Bill Enyart were briefed and toured the area between Cairo and St. Louis, Mo., where low water has exposed rock formations and caused delays at the locks. They were accompanied by Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard officials.

Because of the narrower river channel at some points on the river, barges have to nose into the river banks to allow traffic from the opposite direction to pass. A tow can travel up to four miles an hour, which in good weather and normal water depth allows the tugs to travel about 100 miles a day. Traffic traveling south on the river have priority over barges coming north. The low river levels are caused by the drought in the Midwest.

Businesses on the river in Putnam County have varying points of view.

“Here at AgView, we only receive cargo, and delays are anywhere from a week to 10 days,” Tom Fehlhafer of Growmark/AgView FS said. “Barges are delayed on both sides down river, so commerce is being greatly affected. It is delaying barges in getting our product out.”

Barges are like rail cars; they are dropped off at different fleeting areas as they travel and are moved by local fleeting tugs as they are needed by the businesses. When companies need barges that are stored in fleeting to fill or unload, the business calls, and the barges are delivered by the fleeting company.

Fehlhafer judges the height of the river by the high line pole located on the opposite shore. This is his river depth gauge.

“The level at Hennepin is not all that bad. Our water level is determined by the locks at Peoria and the locks at Starved Rock. We have been pretty fortunate all summer with the water level, and as late as Christmas, we were showing 20 feet of water at our liquid fertilizer dock,” Fehlhafer said. “The main channel is about 12.5 feet between Peoria and Starved Rock, according to the website.”

Next door at Marquis Energy, Denny Throneburg, CFO, and Roger Marquis, logistics manager, think the Army Corp of Engineers is doing all it can to keep the channel open. The Army Corp has been asked to allow more water to be released from the Missouri River to help relieve the problem on the river.

Marquis ships ethanol and DDG (dry distillers grain) used to feed livestock to New Orleans, La., and Houston, Texas.

“If they have trouble widening the channel, we’ll see more delays, and we won’t be able to put as large a load in the barges,” Throneburg said. “That means it will take more barges to ship the same amount of product.

“Nobody will actually say, ‘Close the river,’” Marquis said. “They will just restrict the draft so severely it will become difficult to ship. Barge companies don’t want to take the risk of damaging their barges in the channel either.

“If we can’t use the river, we have to make some alterations in how we ship products out,” Throneburg said.

“We can ship DDG containers by truck and have the chaises unloaded directly onto railcars,” Marquis said. “From there, the DDG can be shipped out west and then exported overseas if we want. The ethanol can be shipped out by truck or rail.”

“Barge traffic is notoriously cheaper,” Throneburg added. “We have to take into account the time element with each shipping method also.

“There’s not much anybody can do about anything unless we get water,” Throneburg said. “We can only do so much to minimize the effect of the drought. The state is doing all they can and making their best effort to keep the river open.”

“It really depends on Mother Nature,” Marquis said.

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