Floods and 21st-century Traffic on the Mississippi
On April 30, 2019, as the longest flood on record headed toward its 39th day and Louisa County was one of Iowa’s counties headed for a federal disaster declaration, all but two locks were closed on the upper Mississippi River. Barge traffic in this part of the river had come to a complete halt, said Allen Marshall of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District.
On that last day of April, Lock and Dam 15 at Rock Island had been closed since March due to flooding, and, though Lock 19 in Keokuk and 21 in Quincy were still open, they would be closed in the next couple of days. Then all locks on the river from Dubuque in northern Iowa to Saverton, Missouri, would be closed.
Marshall said, “I don’t think there is a typical flooding season anymore….We had some closures last year, and it happens, but it hasn’t been a regular occurrence—at least not to the extent that all of these locks are closed right now. That’s rare.” (The 1993 floods that devastated so much of the Midwest closed barge traffic on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for two months.)
As a result of the flooding and the closure of river traffic, companies shipping goods on dozens of barges up and down the river had to find alternative transportation and deal with delayed operations.
By mid-May it was clear that agriculture would be hit especially hard by the closed river traffic. In the spring, last fall’s soybeans, corn, and other grains are shipped from elevators in the upper Midwest down river to markets, usually intended for overseas sales. Fertilizer travels, routinely, up the river in the spring. With the closed river traffic, grain elevators had no space for farmers ready to send their crops to market. About $250 million in goods are shipped on the Mississippi River.
The National Waterways Foundation estimates that one 15-barge tow on the Mississippi can ship as much as 6 locomotives pulling 216 cars or as much as 1,050 large semi-trailers. The costs to ship by rail or truck are higher because the barges can carry more and use less fuel.
Even as companies who ordinarily use river transport were considering alternative plans, the Corps was warning that opening of locks would not necessarily mean opening of commercial river traffic. The high water could make it impossible for tows and barges to pass under all bridges over the river.
Sources: on-line: “Catastrophe Strikes Davenport/River Overruns Flood Barriers, Times/Dispatch-Argus, April 30, 2019; Margery Beck, “US Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t expect normal Mississippi river traffic until June,” Associated Press, May 18, 2019; Linda Cook, “Deadline looms for Scott, Louisa county residents to apply for FEMA assistance,” Dispatch-Argus, June 19, 2019; “1993: Iowa rains that wouldn’t go away,” The Gazette, July 14, 2018.