Shipping

The Mississippi River Ebbs, and Farmers Stock Up


A dredging vessel near Greenville, Miss.

Photograph by Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

A dredging vessel near Greenville, Miss.

The trucks begin lining up early in the morning at the Growmark Bussen Terminal south of downtown St. Louis, their driver-side doors bearing the names of farm towns such as Ste. Genevieve, Mo., and Bunker Hill, Ill. They come to pick up fertilizer from Russia and the Middle East that’s been shipped to the Gulf of Mexico and then to barges going up the Mississippi River. Farms are rushing to get what they need before the river’s dropping water levels shut off the flow of cargo, threatening next season’s crops. “Worst-case scenario, we run very short of supplies when they’re needed for planting,” says Joe Dillier, plant food director for Bloomington (Ill.)-based Growmark, a provider of farm equipment and fertilizer. His company is stockpiling as much urea and potash—ingredients in fertilizer—as it can in its warehouse.

The rush is on to keep customers supplied, workers employed, and commerce alive in communities that rely on the nation’s busiest waterway. The usual dry season, combined with the worst drought in 50 years, may push water levels so low by Dec. 11 that river traffic won’t be able to navigate from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., 180 miles south.

State and local officials want the federal government to raise the limit on the water that can be released from dams on the Missouri River to the Mississippi. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging downstream from St. Louis. On Dec. 3 the corps announced it would blast away massive limestone rock formations, known as pinnacles, that stud the riverbed near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower. Shippers also want President Obama to declare a state of emergency. That would let the president overrule the Corps, which is reluctant to divert more water from the Missouri.

If river traffic is halted for two months, more than 20,000 jobs are at risk—from dockworkers to truckers and coal miners—and $130 million in wages and benefits, according to estimates from American Waterways Operators, a trade group for the tugboat, towboat, and barge industry. More than $2.3 billion of agricultural products, $1.8 billion in chemicals, and $1.3 billion of petroleum products normally ship in December and January, the group says.

The ripples would spread from the banks of the river—where rocks that haven’t been exposed to air in decades are now drying in the sun—to the fields and factories of the Midwest. That includes companies such as Knight Hawk Coal of Percy, Ill., about 66 miles southeast of St. Louis. The family-owned mining company employs 400 people full-time and has 300 contractors. The company hasn’t had layoffs since it opened in 1997, says Andrew Carter, vice president of sales and distribution.

Carter’s trucks normally haul coal 25 miles to barges waiting on the Mississippi, which then carry it to customers. If the river becomes unnavigable south of St. Louis, the company will have to truck coal 100 miles to the Ohio River, which can still handle barges. “That’s probably going to double my costs” and endanger jobs, says Carter.

The disruption comes just as farmers are focusing on shipping their crops into global markets, says Jack McCormick, who raises corn, soybeans, and wheat near Ellis Grove, Ill., about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis. Because the 2,300-mile-long Mississippi River is such a cheap and accessible transportation route for the area, local farmers send “almost all our crop to export. When a country buys grain, it comes from here.”

Graphic by Bloomberg Businessweek

The bottom line: More than 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages and benefits are at risk if the Mississippi is not navigable for two months.

Bjerga is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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