ST. LOUIS -- Mississippi River barge operators squeezed by last year's drought girded Friday against the prospect of new troubles from the waterway now that it's swollen from heavy rains and threatening to crimp shipments of everything from steel and cement to fertilizer and grain.
Locks being closed at points along the Mississippi that represent important gateways between the Upper Mississippi and points south to the Gulf of Mexico, where grains and other imports make their way to global markets. Idling the locks could snarl barges headed north of St. Louis to Minnesota as well as those southbound from middle America to New Orleans.
So far, four locks have been closed between the Missouri towns of Canton, near the Iowa border, and Clarksville, and a fifth is expected to shut down Saturday, ultimately bringing the affected stretch of river to some 100 miles. The Army Corps of Engineers said it's unclear how long the closures would last, noting the potential of more Midwest storms into the weekend.
That's unwelcomed news to barge operators that haven't caught much of a break.
For barge-operating AEP River Operations, it's a perplexing carry-over of the tumult the industry has weathered since last summer. The nation's worst drought in decades lowered the Mississippi River to such levels that barge loads had to be curtailed so shipments rode higher in the water and didn't scrape the riverbed. When the river reached near-historic lows in January, the river was perilously close to being shut down altogether.
Now, with the swollen Mississippi's currents fiercer, those cargos again are being pulled back to allow for the towboats and barges to safely maneuver through treacherous river bends.
All of that is cutting into shippers' efficiencies, slowing travel times and hiking fuel costs for operators because more trips are needed. As AEP's senior manager of bulk sales, Marty Hettel said the company accustomed to pushing barge formations five wide and five long now are compelled to use configurations just four barges wide.
"High water is always a headache. The current gets so fast," Hettel said for the company that, with a fleet of 3,100 barges and roughly 90 towboats, moved 74 million tons of cargo last year ranging from coal, grain, fertilizers, salt, iron ore and finished steel.
Hettel said that as of mid-Friday, the lock closures threatened to stop two AEP barges in their tracks, though that traffic jam could mushroom as the idling of the locks drag on.
"We deal with Mother Nature a lot in this industry, and it definitely has a direct result on our operating profitability" he said. "It's just ironic that we went from a 2011 flood to a 2012 drought - and now more flooding. I don't have any idea why it's happening."
Near the Illinois-Missouri border, flooding also was expected by Friday evening to force the closure of the Champ Clark Bridge, which takes U.S. 54 over the river in Louisiana, Mo., north of St. Louis. That wasn't good news for commuters, given that the next nearest crossing is in Hannibal, 35 miles to the north.
This is the second time this spring that the Missouri and Mississippi rivers have quickly swelled. The Missouri, which remained mostly below flood stage in April, is flooding this time and expected by the National Weather Service to reach 30 feet Sunday near the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. The levee protecting that city's airport and some industrial buildings is built to hold back water up to 30 feet, so sandbaggers are adding to the top just in case.
Emergency managers said floodwaters in this spring's floods have risen quicker than in past years.
"I characterize the April flood as a flash flood on the Mississippi River," said John Simon, emergency management director for Adams County, Ill., where Quincy is the county seat. "These days, the floods are coming faster and we have less time to react."
Flooding doesn't have the impact it did in years past thanks to government-funded buyouts of homes and businesses in the flood plains, a program that became urgent after the devastating Great Flood of 1993. Still, floodwaters already have swamped tens of thousands of acres of rich Midwestern farmland, closed countless roads and damaged scattered businesses and homes.
MORE: Flooding in the Midwest