On-going drought threatens Missouri river navigation
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On-going drought threatens Missouri river navigation

Date: December 6, 2006
By: Lucie Wolken
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri River barge traffic that has been slowing dissipating over the past decade could disappear completely during the 2008 season. 
If the prolonged drought that has plagued western states persists, the 2008 navigation season could be canceled, according to the Missouri Natural Resources Department.

"If the drought continues, projections are right now -- depending on how severe the drought is -- in 2008 the reservoirs could get to a point where we wouldn't have any navigation support at all," said Mike Wells, Deputy Director of Water Resources at the department.  "Rather than just shortening it, they wouldn't even try to have a navigation season in order to conserve water."

For the Missouri River to permit barge and tow traffic, the water levels must be able to support  a 7 ft.. 6 inch barge depth in order for carriers to pass down the waterways undamaged.  When levels sink too low to support river traffic, the U.S. Corps of Engineers release water to increase river depth.   There are six reservoirs operated by the Corps that affect the Missouri River.

"The system is intended to meet downstream needs during a drought season," Larry Murphy, reservoir regulation team leader for the Reservoir Operating Center for the Missouri River, said.  "However, the problem is that after seven years of compensating for drought levels, the reservoirs levels are continuing to deplete."

The six reservoirs that the Corps regulate are Fort Peck, Oahe, Garrison, Big Bend, Fort Randall, Gavins Point.  They stretch from South Dakota all the way up through Montana to make up the largest reservoir system in the United States.  Combined, the reservoirs have the ability to hold 70 million acre feet of water regulated from the reservoir operating center in Omaha, Nebraska.  

On March 15 of every year, members of the Corps meet, assess reservoir levels, and decide if they will support the upcoming season.  On July 1, they meet again to decide whether they will shorten the navigation season, a decision they have come to for the past four years.  If the combined levels of the six reservoirs on dip below 31 million acre feet on March 15, the Corps will not commit themselves to the upcoming season, according to Murphy. 

While terminal managers blame the lack of traffic on drought conditions, Chad Smith, director of the Nebraska Field Office for American Rivers, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting North American rivers, says that the drought only exacerbates a problem that has always existed.

"[Barge traffic] has been dissipating since it started on the Missouri River," Smith said.  "It has never lived up to it's promised potential."

Regardless of the cause of the decrease, a complete end to navigation would have economic implications for terminal operators. 

Moving product by barge is the cheapest form of transfer, according to Sherry Martin, Missouri Waterways Programs Manager.  When navigation on the Missouri River is not an option, terminals must resort more expensive means.

"With a six barge tow, we can bring in 300 truck loads," Bob Cox, supervisor for the Jefferson City River Terminal, said.  "This reduces the cost of fuel and labor.  When we have to do this by truck, you have to take that many more trips and it is more expensive."

Jefferson City River Terminal is responsible for transferring bulk cement.  On average, a fleet of over 50 trucks is needed in order to transfer one barge worth of his clients material, according to Cox.   

If the navigation season is in fact canceled in 2008, terminals like Jefferson City River Terminal will have to acquire more equipment and more labor, leading to greater expenses, according to Cox. 

The cost for a truck to move one ton of material per mile is over seven times more than that on a barge.  In terms of fuel consumption, nine times as much fuel to transfer one ton of material, according to the Maritime Administration Services.

Missouri River barge traffic has not reached full functioning levels for years as terminals have gradually began switching to more reliable modes of transfer.  Smith attributes this decrease in traffic to an evolving market, instead citing the drought as a contributing factor. 

"Something like navigation on the Missouri -- the health of that industry is going to be driven by market forces and agriculture more than anything," Smith said.

Regardless Smith says that navigation on the Missouri River will not disappear entirely as long as the Corps continues to lend support.

"As soon as the water comes back, you see some people who want to move a little cargo on the river," Smith said.

While the levels have dipped down low before, the Corps has never canceled a season entirely.  However, according to Wells and Murphy, a cancellation of the 2008 season is a real threat.

"They have a trigger, when the reservoirs gets to 31 million acre feet then they make the determination that they will not support a navigation season," Wells said.

A "normal" navigation season for the Missouri River lasts from April 1 to December 1, according to Wells.  The shortened season alone has had a significant impact on river terminals along the Missouri River.  Bob Cox says that the loss of two months of river traffic has already had an effect on his company.

"This year we have only been able to depend on our boat and barges six months which normally we can depend on our navigation for an eight month period.  We're are not able to bring in as much product, of course," Cox said.  "And then we have to depend on other means of transportation which is more expensive like hauling in the the product by truck or by rail."

"We are a barge, truck, and rail terminal -- If you eliminate one mode of transportation it impedes the volume of product you can move, and the options that you might have in terms of shopping rates" General Manager of Big Soo Terminal Kevin Knepper said.  "It pretty much gives the railroad a monopoly."

Regardless of how significant the economic fallout if Missouri River traffic is left unsupported, this will have no affect on the decision the Corps makes on March 15.   

"It's part of our manual.  It is not something that we could just willy-nilly do," Murphy said.  "There are a lot of people who would not like that are depending on the river for transportation that would not appreciate that happening.  The point is that was put in the manual as part of the water conservation, when it gets down below that then that helps you to recover the system back to a more normal range."

If the season is in fact canceled, navigation would be permitted to recommence if the reservoirs are given ample time to recover.