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Still rollin’ down the river ...

Editor’s note: This is the final segment in a two-part series on barge traffic and the businesses it affects on the river.

All the major players have been on deck and have apparently, thanks to Mother Nature, been able to solve the impending disaster with barge traffic on the Mississippi River.

Politicians, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Farm Bureau, American Soybean Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, The Fertilizer Institute and on and on ... none of them could stop Mother Nature, but she took a turn that avoided the crisis.

The drought is causing havoc on the major artery of commerce for Illinois manufacturers and the agricultural community. Putnam County is no exception.

“We have seen problems industry wide,” said Steve Heiden, Cargill AgHorizons Northern Illinois group leader. “The size of tows carrying essential commodities for export and domestic use has been cut in half. Transit times have more than doubled in some cases, and orders have been cancelled or curtailed.”

Cargill primarily ships grain down the river to export terminals. Coming up the river, they bring road salt, fertilizer, metals, oil and petroleum.

“The Corps of Engineers has done a great job trying to maintain a 9-foot channel,” Heiden said. “The corps has been able to expedite its rock pinnacle removal work near Thebes and also release additional water from Mississippi River reservoirs. We have to keep in mind that this situation has been caused by the drought.”

Ryan Emery, regional general manager for Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. (CGB) oversees the facility right across the Illinois River from Cargill in Hennepin. He sees some of the same things happening.

“Transit times to barge destinations in the New Orleans area have increased two-fold in some cases. This has caused us to plan shipments further in advance in order to maintain a satisfactory pipeline for our export customers,” Emery said.

“In some cases, we’ve also been forced to load fewer bushels of grain on a barge in order to decrease barge drafts,” he said. “Fewer bushels in the same equipment results in increased handling and shipping costs.”

“Consolidated Grain ships corn, soybeans and wheat out of our Illinois river locations. CGB receives inbound bulk products such as fertilizer, pig iron, pet coke and other products via barge. Like southbound grain shipments, these northbound shipments have been slowed, and scheduling for end users of these materials has required increased attention,” Emery said.

The Corps of Engineers work is also seen as positive by CGB.

“CGB supports any efforts of the Corps to maintain a navigable 9-foot channel on the river system and realizes first-hand the challenges that the current situation presents to industries that rely on the waterway,” Emery said. “The ultimate solution will be precipitation this winter and spring.”

So, we find ourselves back to Mother Nature. And she has helped us out over the last couple of weeks. The second week of January the U.S. Coast Guard relaxed their previously rigid draft restrictions for vessels transiting the area in response to the improved river forecast due to the rain.

The prioritized removal of the most threatening pinnacles by the Army Corps of Engineers at Thebes is completed so it looks like they have succeeded in their efforts to keep barge traffic flowing through that section of the Mississippi at least until mid-February when the river’s water level rises because of seasonal changes.

Unfortunately, drought conditions persist from Northwest to West Central Illinois, as well as in deep Southern Illinois. Drought Monitor indicated moderate drought conditions were still being observed northwest of a line from Henry to Rushville. Much of the remainder of central and southeast Illinois was classified “abnormally dry” because of the long-term precipitation departures from normal, although east central Illinois was not in any drought classification.

Shippers are still watching river gauges along the waterway to make sure they can transit low water areas but they are all hoping that the crisis is over — at least for now.

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