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Drought Brings New Challenges to River Traffic

Much of western Kentucky has been upgraded to “exceptional” drought status .This means crops are struggling, sport practices are being canceled, and bottled water sales are up. The effects reach past the shoreline, though, to our waterways. Regional lakes and rivers are below normal levels. Rose Krzton-Presson explores how a nearly 10 foot drop in the Ohio River has affected traffic for both the Four Rivers Region, and all of the southeastern United States.

There’s one boat at Paducah’s riverfront today- the Motor Vessel JW Heron. Fresh crewmembers climb aboard carrying backpacks from a nearby pickup truck onto the barge. The ship’s hauling gravel to New Orleans. Not as much as usual, though. Captain Curtis Ehlman says they had to lighten their load because of low river levels. 

“Here below Lock 52 and in 53 there’s a lot of boats that can’t go through the lock because the water’s too low. They draft too much. The barges draft too much. Barges have to be tied up.”

“Draft” is how low the boat sits in the water. Even with the lighter load and a smaller draft, Ehlman says he and his crew have still had some difficulties.

CE: Well we’ve run aground a couple times in low water, minor ground.
RKP: What do you do?
CE: Just wiggle off of it.
RKP: Have you had water this low before in your experience?
CE: Not in my experience, no.
RKP: How long have you been doing this?
CE: I’ve been doing it since ’93.”

The major rivers in the southeastern U.S. are regulated with locks and dams. The Army Corps of Engineers tries to maintain at least a 9 foot-depth for barge navigation on the Ohio River in this area. So when the water drops, companies like Ehlman’s Four Rivers Towing ride a fine line between navigation troubles and sacrificing profits. Paducah-McCracken County Riverport Executive Director Ken Canter explains:

“A barge at 9 feet would be carrying approximately 1,500 tons. If they lightened it to 8 feet or 7.5 feet, you’re looking at a 3 or 4 hundred ton reduction in cargo. So at some point, it will necessitate more barges coming up the river.”

That’s where Canter and the Riverport come in. Boats from Mobile to Minneapolis pass through Paducah’s riverfront, and sometimes they need to lighten or even completely unload their cargo. Paducah is at a key location for these boats, and, since this area is renowned for having varying weather (Remember last year’s floods?), Canter says Paducah’s riverport is able to handle just about any river conditions- even when the river is only at half its normal depth.

“Whether it be ice on the upper Mississippi, lock problems on the Ohio River, low water, high water sometimes, is where we get the benefit of our location. We get calls from people that need barges unloaded.”

Say, a ship departs from Nebraska- where they’re getting some rain right now. That ship holds enough cargo that it has a 9 foot draft. As it travels down the Missouri and the Mississippi and it gets to the Ohio River at Paducah, they find shallower waters. The channels here are only 9 feet deep and the boat is dragging on the bottom of the river. So they stop at Paducah’s riverport, unload a few hundred tons of cargo. Now the boat only has a 7 foot draft. It can continue down the river, but where did all that cargo go? The riverport leases out over 100-thousand square feet of warehouse space to store such cargo. At least, Canter says, until another barge can come pick it up.

“We have not seen a decline in our normal business patterns. If anything, we’ve seen an increase in the inquiries from people that want us to help them out.”

Barge companies have a good idea if they’ll need that help when they check the forecast sent out by the National Weather Service. Hydrometeorlogical Technician Robin Smith says he covers an area from about St. Louis to Memphis to Tell City and Vincennes in southern Indiana.

“But most generally, everything is running about h alf what it should be.”

Half the normal depth. Smith says rain in northern states should make its way down here in a few days. But if the water were to drop much lower, he says, commercial traffic will take a major hit.

If we keep having these situations, we’ll have to shut [down] barge traffic at different locations along all the rivers.”

But for now, barges of sand and fertilizer and petroleum and steel and wire and rubber and gravel are still (slowly) making their way along the southeast rivers. The new crewmembers boarding Curtis Ehlman’s vessel will, eventually, see the New Orleans shipyards.

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