WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — A coalition of agricultural, agribusiness and maritime organizations co-signed a letter to urge U.S. President Barack Obama to issue a presidential emergency declaration to maintain navigation on the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., and Cairo, Illinois, U.S. Drought conditions have reduced the upper Mississippi River to unusually low levels, which is affecting barge shipments of agricultural commodities and supplies.
"Navigation on this strategic 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River will be impaired severely — and barge transportation may well cease altogether by mid-December unless the administration takes emergency action to ensure the statutorily authorized nine-foot draft needed to maintain commercial navigation," the letter said.
According to the coalition, the impact of Mississippi River navigation disruptions on prices paid to farmers could be significant. The coalition reminded the president about the "precipitous decline in basis level...following Hurricane Katrina...to see the devastating impacts that disruptions in inland waterway and port transportation can have on producers reliant on marketing their commodities to barge-loading facilities."
The coalition urged two courses of action, including directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release sufficient flows from Missouri River reservoirs to maintain a nine-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi River.
Maintaining navigability during the late fall and early winter is vital to the southbound river transportation of grains, oilseeds and grain products for export.
While drought-reduced crop yields plagued much of the U.S. growing region in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that more than 65 million tonnes of grains and nearly 37 million tonnes of soybeans are likely to be exported in the current marketing year. In total, it was projected that approximately 300 million bushels of grains and oilseeds worth $2.3 billion would be delayed in reaching their intended markets in December and January if Mississippi river navigation is disrupted. Meanwhile, it was estimated more than 500,000 tonnes of fertilizer moving northbound would be disrupted during the same two-month period.
The letter also urged waiver of federal acquisition rules to expedite the agency’s contract-award procedures and order that the Army Corps of Engineers take immediate action to remove rock formations near Grand Tower and Thebes, Illinois, U.S., which present hazards to navigation. Otherwise, the letter noted, the Corps has indicated it would take until as late as the end of March to complete the project. But, the letter emphasized, “while removal of these rock pinnacles should be helpful, this action in-and-of-itself is not expected to fully alleviate the need for Missouri river flows to maintain navigation.”
The organizations also emphasized that losing access to efficient, low-cost barge transportation would adversely affect U.S. farmers and agribusinesses through higher transportation costs. It noted that barges provide a competitive alternative that disciplines rates charged by other modes, In addition, the organizations said, it would be “neither feasible nor cost-effective” to divert the volume of affected agricultural commodities to truck and rail given capacity and routing constraints.