Pilots thread the needle
Worst drought in 50 years creates 180 mile low-water choke point
Sandbars no one can remember seeing above water are visible from the wheelhouse of the Capt. Bill Stewart as it churns past Hanging Dog Bluff on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, a warning of more treacherous conditions ahead. “I’ve been out h
“It’s dangerous. You can put it on the ground really easily,” says pilot Jeff Heflin, navigating the Capt. Bill Stewart tow boat on the Mississippi River outside St. Louis, Mo., recently. The river for the 180-mile stretch from St. Louis, Mo. to Cairo, Ill., is so low it could soon be shut down any time.
Sandbars no one can remember seeing above water are visible from the wheelhouse of the Capt. Bill Stewart as it churns past Hanging Dog Bluff on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, a warning of more treacherous conditions ahead.
“I’ve been out here 46 years and I’ve never seen it this bad,” Darrell Alford, 66, captain of the tow boat, said as he steered the vessel. “You’re on edge all the time.”
The worst drought in 50 years has cut the river depth by two-thirds in some places, creating a low-water choke point between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., for the $7 billion worth of grain, coal and other commodities that typically move this time of year. Barring extra rainfall, the Army Corps of Engineers predicts the river will be too shallow in coming weeks for the tow boats that push barges down the 180-mile section of the river.
Carriers such as AEP River Operations, owner of the Capt. Bill Stewart, are rushing to get shipments through in case the river is shut to barges. The extra traffic, narrower passage and shallow water have turned the trip into an obstacle course for the 5,600-horsepower boat as it nudges its 22,000-ton load down the twisty, muddy river at about 9 mph.
In the most treacherous section, a five-mile stretch that begins about 44 miles north of Cairo near Thebes, Ill., Capt. Bill Stewart’s steel hull passes close to submerged rock outcroppings known as pinnacles.
“That is very unfortunate for metal,” pilot Jeff Heflin, 46, said as he steered the tow boat and barges through the pinnacles. “It’s dangerous. You can put it on the ground really easily.”
The Corps hopes to keep the river open by blasting away pinnacles and dredging the bottom in 21 trouble spots between St. Louis and Cairo. Last week, the agency rejected a request from shippers to divert water from the Missouri River, a major Mississippi tributary. On board the Capt. Bill Stewart, news of the decision was met with quiet resignation.
Even if the rock blasting begins as planned later this month, it will take up to two months to complete, according to the Corps of Engineers.
A closure, “seems inevitable,” Heflin said. “They say they’re going to blow out the pinnacles. I don’t know what else they could do.”
The U.S. projects water levels on the Mississippi near St. Louis will drop to a depth of about 9 feet on Dec. 26, slightly higher than forecast a week ago. Water levels will continue to drop, absent precipitation, the National Weather Service said yesterday in its four-week forecast.
Most tow boats and barges cannot operate at depths lower than 9 feet, according to the Corps. The Capt. Bill Stewart and other similar-sized tow boats require at least 10 feet of water, according to Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, of Chesterfield, Mo., a unit of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power.
This time last year, the river was about 20 feet deeper, according to Terry Douglas, dry-dock superintendent at JB Marine Services about 15 miles south of St. Louis. Last week, JB’s office, a floating barge on the bank of the river, wasn’t floating as low water levels left it listing to one side.
“We’ve been on the ground a couple of months,” Douglas said in an interview. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Restrictions have already affected companies that rely on the river to transport goods, including Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill and Arch Coal. Shippers can only haul 15 barges at a time because a typical run of 25 is too wide for current river conditions, Hettel said. The barges can only be loaded with about 1,500 tons of goods as opposed to their 2,000-ton capacity.
“It comes to the point of how cost effective is it to run these barges,” Hettel said in an interview.
Lighter loads means more boats on the river at a time when there is less room to navigate, a combination that has led to severe delays. One run between Cairo and St. Louis last week took 96 hours, according to Hettel. The trip usually takes about 20 hours.
“So many boats have the same objective you do, trying to get this stuff to Cairo before conditions fall out,” Alford said.
During a trip last week, the Capt. Bill Stewart was pushing 21,737 tons of corn and soybean on 15 barges lashed together by steel cables. The barges, each measuring 200 by 35 feet, are arranged in a rectangle five barges long by three wide. The tow boat is 140 feet long and by 42 feet wide.
Fog set in overnight forcing the boat to idle on the riverbank for about 8 hours and pushing back its arrival at Thebes, Illinois, where the pinnacles are most threatening, to the late afternoon.
The route takes barges past Backbone, a 90 degree bend in the river Alford described as “a pretty good steer.” A wide sandbar that Alford said he was able to pass over last year appeared on the left bank. On this day it would get a wide berth.
“We’re not going to play with it,” Alford said. “We’re going around it.”
The river flows past Hanging Dog Bluff where, in current conditions, you “don’t like to meet anybody in there at all,” Alford said. At Grays Point, “people start jockeying for position” ahead of a railroad bridge at Thebes, the start of the most dangerous stretch of river.
When the boat reached Thebes, Heflin was at the helm joined by Alford in the wheelhouse. While the river at Thebes runs straighter than at Hanging Dog Bluff or Dogtooth Bend ahead, the route over the pinnacles, narrowed by the drought, is a tougher challenge. Red and green buoys recently set by the U.S. Coast Guard mark a narrow lane of water deep enough for the boat to clear the hidden rocks.
Heflin stood through the section, focused on the buoys ahead and the pinnacles that breach the surface on either side.
“Damn good obstacle course,” Alford said. “You work hard for your money in conditions like this.”
Just below the pinnacles, eight tow boats with their barges were pulled off to the side waiting for a chance to move north on the shrunken river.
“Sitting there just pushing against a hill,” Alford said. “Burning all that precious diesel fuel. Not making a mile.”
Heflin, who lives in Dover, Tenn., about 85 miles northwest of Nashville, has river work in his blood, His grandfather was a tow boat pilot and many people from his part of the state work on the Mississippi.
“To make any kind of money, you can’t really stay around,” Dover, he said.
Tow boat crews work 28 days on the boat then take 28 days off. The schedule means that while Heflin can meet his kids at the school bus and cook cornbread in an iron skillet for them when he’s home, he misses many of his 6-year-old son’s baseball and football games.
Talk of a possible river closing has Heflin and other crew members speculating about their immediate future. There may be work on the Ohio River on another AEP boat, he said.
AEP has about 1,475 people in river operations, according to Hettel. The company may put boats into dry dock and hold crews over depending on how long a closure lasts. AEP plans to idle about a dozen boats that it hires under contract first.
“I don’t see our own people being laid off,” Hettel said.
Alford, who began working on the river at 20, was more pessimistic.
“When it comes to dollars and cents, they have to do what they have to do to satisfy the shareholders,” Alford said. “There’s some work over on the Ohio River, but it’s not going to be enough to support everybody. It’s trying times. This job, if it teaches you anything, it’s patience.”
— With assistance from Brian Wingfield in Washington.