Drought In Danger Of Beaching Mississippi Barges

The drought that's impacting much the country is drying up crops and now rivers. The Mississippi River is experiencing water levels low enough to affect barge traffic. Barge companies are lightening loads, meaning more boats are needed for the same amount of cargo. Robert Siegel speaks with Mark Mestemacher, co-owner of Ceres Barge Line in St. Louis.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now we turn to the Mississippi River. The drought has brought parts of the Mississippi to near record low water levels. Those shallow conditions pose difficulties for barge traffic on the river and we turn now to Mark Mestemacher who is co-owner of Ceres Barge Line. It's based in East St. Louis. Welcome to the program.

MARK MESTEMACHER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And how low is the river in East St. Louis?

MESTEMACHER: Well, right now, they're sitting at a three-foot river stage. Two months ago we were probably around 20-foot river stage, so we've lost quite a bit here in the last four weeks.

SIEGEL: From 20 feet to three feet? Is that what you're saying?

MESTEMACHER: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: And how does that affect your ability to run barges on the river?

MESTEMACHER: Well, for probably the first six months of this year, we were able to load to a 12-foot draft, which basically means that the barge is 12 foot underneath the water. And right now, we're restricted to a nine-foot draft, so we've lost three foot of draft, which equates to about 600 tons of product that we no longer can put on that barge.

SIEGEL: Well, does that mean that to transport the same amount of cargo, you've got to use that many more barges?

MESTEMACHER: Right. We were loading around 2,200 tons, 2,300 tons in a barge and currently we can only load between 1,600 or 1,700 tons. So we've seen about 600 tons less, really a third of the capacity we no longer can load in a barge.

SIEGEL: But how does it affect your business? Do you get paid by the ton or by the barge?

MESTEMACHER: Yeah, we get paid a dollar per ton, so if the market was $12 a ton to move it from St. Louis to New Orleans and we were putting 2,200 tons, you know, that's the revenue we're generating. And right now, we're generating a much less revenue because we're only - say, the rate's still $12 a ton, but we're only putting 1,600 tons, so we're losing because we can't load as heavy.

SIEGEL: What do you hear about the outlook for the river in the coming week or two?

MESTEMACHER: It's not optimistic. You know, we're seeing a lot of shippers, St. Louis and south, that all of a sudden can't even get the barges, the empty barges into their dock to load because of shallow areas. So we're starting to see more and more shippers that are saying don't even bring us a barge because we can't get it to our dock and we can't load the product in the barge.

We're also seeing that the towing companies, the ones that move the barges from point A to point B, they're being restricted. St. Louis and south, four weeks ago they were moving 42 barges to a tow or somewhere in that area, 42, 45 barges to a tow. Now they're down to 30 barge tows and some of them have already cut back to 25 barge tows. So a towing company that, you know, is getting paid to tow our barges, they've lost a minimum of 40 percent of their revenue. And in some cases, as much as 50 percent of their revenue they've seen disappear because they can't tow as many barges.

SIEGEL: No rain in the forecast.

MESTEMACHER: No. We haven't seen - I mean, they continue to say we've got 10 percent or 20 percent spot, you know, spot showers, but in reality, we haven't had any rain for 30-plus days. And even if we got a two-inch or three-inch rain in this area, it is so dry that the ground will absorb that so quick we won't see that have any impact on the river stage here in St. Louis.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Mestemacher, good luck to you and thanks for talking with us.

MESTEMACHER: All right. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mark Mestemacher is co-owner of the Ceres Barge Line. He spoke to us from East St. Louis, Illinois.

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