Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Low Water Levels Restrict Shipping

It is less than two years since record-setting floods in central North America, and now, water levels are not far from record lows, raising the possibility of shipping restrictions on the Mississippi River and Lake Huron.

The recent snow event helped some, but even so, based on the hydrology maps, the Mississippi River is two dry weeks away from stopping most cargo traffic. As it is, barges have to load lighter than usual and navigate very carefully through several problem areas on the river.

A few weeks after that, if spring rains do not arrive early, it could be a similar story on Lake Huron, with larger cargo ships unable to pass through. That would cut off Chicago from the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in recent memory. Already many of the smaller ports on Lakes Michigan and Huron are too shallow for cargo, and it would take a year of normal rain to restore a normal water level.

On both the Mississippi River and Lake Huron, dredging may help in the short run. Crews are removing boulders from the bottom of the Mississippi River to keep it open upstream of the Ohio River, but even that will not help for long if this summer’s weather is a repeat of last year. The real answer to keep the freight moving is more mid-continent rain.