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Maintenance Work On Mississippi River Slows Barge Traffic

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A closure along the Mississippi River near Fair Landing, Ark., is causing an average of a 10-hour delay for the transportation of goods.

The Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed miles 632-635 to repair banks from flood damage in 2011. Army Corps spokesperson for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jim Pogue said they are placing concrete mattresses along the river bank to prevent erosion and flooding. The revetment helps flood control and aiding navigation.

“The river has to be at certain level for us to do that otherwise if the water’s too high we can’t really effectively do this work,” Pogue said. “Right now is the time that we need to do this work. Unfortunately at Fair Landing, the river bend is quite narrow and so as we back out into the river it’s necessary to back out into the river channel and this would present an unacceptable level of danger to passing tows.”

According to president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc. Mike Toohey, this year there is a record crop and record export movement from the Midwest to New Orleans, La.

“Railroads have had a very difficult time servicing the grain trade and we are seeing more grain moving on the river than we have historically this year,” Toohey said.

Toohey said this period is vital for the transportation of grain along with salt and fertilizer for spring planting.

“We are trying to cycle the barges ahead of winter weather to try and get them back up river as quickly as we can so we can load them with grain again and that’s the big concern is the cycle time being elongated by the delay right when we need transportation for this record harvest,” Toohey said.

The first day of the closure caused a queue of 32 tows with an average of 35-45 barges per tow. Now the Corps is allowing tows to proceed through the restricted area after dusk until dawn.

“The queue has been able to be cleared every night so there hasn’t been an enormous impact, but the first day’s delay when we were caught off guard resulted in just increase shipping costs of $454,000,” Toohey said.

Toohey said roughly 30 boats are cleared every night.

“If the number of boats that show up exceeds 30 then we are going to have a problem of multiple day delays and backups on the waterway and that’s what we are concerned about,” Toohey said.

A test run was conducted to see if boats could travel northbound to avoid the backup but a barge couldn’t travel the route safely.

“We certainly understand their concerns and we’re doing everything we can to work with them and make sure their impact to their  needs are as minimal as possible,” Pogue said.

The Corps will also re-buoy the 3 miles in order to widen the channel.

The work will be completed by Nov. 25 and then the Corps will move to another nearby location which will impose the same closure. Toohey said two additional projects are scheduled for the year that will cause some more navigation restriction.

Jen Gradl was a student reporter at KRCU in 2014.