The water level of the Mississippi River where it runs along the eastern border of Arkansas is very low and getting lower and this is causing a number of problems for navigation along the waterway as well as some opportunity for a local business.
Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Company is a fixture in the local business community and its history is inexorably tied with that of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.
Drew Atkinson, the company’s secretary/treasurer, said that the historically low water levels have created both headaches and opportunities for the business.
“Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel has two dredging contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge along the Mississippi River,” Atkinson said. “We have a dustpan dredge that is working to keep the main shipping channel along the river open from Greenville [Miss.] down to Baton Rouge [La.]. We’ve been working since early summer to dredge out the low spots and keep the river open for commercial navigation.”
Atkinson said the second dredging operation that Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel has under way involves keeping a number of harbors along the Mississippi open by dredging out sediment along the mouths of these harbors to allow barges and their pilot boats to enter and exit.
“We are working at harbors from Vicksburg, Miss., over to Lake Providence, La.,” Atkinson said. “The water has dropped so swiftly that the Corps has put out a second harbor dredging contract. Farmers are worried about being able to get their crops out.”
Atkinson said farmers depend upon companies that operate grain elevators along the river to load barges with their agricultural products and get them shipped downriver to waiting buyers.
Atkinson added that his company is also being hurt by the low water levels because part of their operation is the shipping of rock by barge.
“When you are shipping by barge you want at least a 12-foot channel,” Atkinson said. “We are shipping rock on the Mississippi River so we are affected by this as well. Everybody’s cutting back to nine feet of depth or less which means that instead of a full load you carry less cargo and have fewer barges per boat. Where you would have 30 barges before you are now having 20 barges. There is a significant cost impact that comes with the lower water.”
Atkinson said the idling of more than 100 vessels because of the multi-day closure by the Corps of an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River near Greenville early last week has added to shipper expenses.
“Everybody’s still paying for the crews and for fuel,” Atkinson said. “Nobody is expecting any improvement in the near term.”
In an Aug. 7 press release the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps said it was working with the navigation industry and the U.S. Coast Guard to keep the river open to commercial shipping.
“Unless additional rainfall occurs the latest long-range forecast calls for river conditions to continue to fall through the end of August with new low-water records possible at several key navigation points along the lower Mississippi between Cairo, Illinois, and Baton Rouge,” the press release said. “Of particular concern are the harbors along the lower river that require additional dredging as the water levels possibly fall to historic lows. The harbors serve as on-ramps for the transportation of 500 million tons of commodities that are transported annually along the 12,000-mile-long inland waterways system.”
Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, the recently appointed president of the Mississippi River Commission, spoke at a public meeting of the MRC Aug. 21 in Memphis and told a group of Corps officials, water managers and business leaders that five harbors along the river in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi were closed because of low water levels and that several others have limited access.
Information on the Corps of Engineers web site showed that the Mississippi River at Greenville as of 3 p.m. Saturday was at 7.12 feet, with a flood stage of 48 feet and a record stage of 65.40 feet on April 21, 1927.
The Mississippi River at Natchez, Miss.,as of 3 p.m. Saturday was at 8.50 feet, with a flood stage of 48 feet and a record stage of 61.90 feet on May 19, 2011 according to the Corps of Engineers.
David Bush, chairman of the Pine Bluff Port Authority, said that aside from the slowdown of Arkansas River traffic headed south toward the Mississippi River because of the low water conditions on that waterway, navigation in this area has been unaffected by low water.
“Basically we have not had navigation problems along the Arkansas River yet,” Bush said. “There is some slower traffic because of what is happening on the Mississippi but other than that the Arkansas is doing well.”
There are some additional problems along the lower Arkansas but they are of a mechanical and not a hydrological nature.
“We have a mechanical issue at the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam,” said Laurie Driver, public affairs spokesperson with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District, talking about the facility located at the confluence of the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers. “We are still locking boats through while we wait for a part to arrive. A pin on the gate of the lock needs to be replaced. As soon as the part comes in we will close the lock long enough to make the repair.”
Driver said water levels in the Arkansas River are where they should be because of the proper functioning of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.
“The Arkansas River is doing better than it would be if the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam wasn’t there,” Driver said. “The Mississippi River is extremely low right now and Montgomery Point is keeping the Arkansas River navigable by maintaining a minimum water level of nine feet in its pool.”
Driver reminds those planning to head out to the river as the Labor Day weekend approaches to be mindful of water safety.
“We have a holiday weekend coming up and with the number of drownings we have had this year we are really pushing water safety,” Driver said. “If you are on the water wear your life vest.”
The Corps of Engineers reported that as of 3 p.m. Saturday the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff was at 31.40 feet, with a flood stage of 42 feet and a record stage of 52.10 feet on May 28, 1943.