Rainfall has been minimal this year in Northwest Missouri. While not having an extreme amount of high water is a positive, a negative effect is low barge traffic on the Missouri River.
The level of the river currently sits at just more than 7 feet, and at least 9 feet of water is needed to allow the barges to move safely. Over the past couple of years, the pace has been increasing at St. Joseph’s port for barge traffic.
“The port down here is starting to get some additional traffic unloading these wind turbine blades,” said Lee Sawyer, Buchanan County’s presiding commissioner. “It is kind of amazing how they have gotten traction, so the river has to stay up or they start running into areas where it gets shallow.”
Transporting wind turbines by barge has proven to be the most cost-effective way to move them for companies. These turbines are not staying in Buchanan County, instead going north to places like Rock Port, Missouri, and Northeast Kansas.
The port has been closed for barge traffic for three to four weeks now, which has caused problems for Transport 360, which currently operates the port in town.
“We have 15 more barges with propellers to unload this year,” said Richard DeShon, the chairperson for the St. Joseph Port Authority. “We thought we had an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would maintain a 9-foot channel.”
The barge traffic has been new for St. Joseph in the last several years. The port still was being used, but barges were not delivering cargo to the area. The St. Joseph Port Authority was able to wrangle Transport 360 here with the promise of consistent water levels as previously agreed upon by the corps. DeShon said with the river currently being closed to barges, this could cause an unwanted effect for current and future business.
“I will tell you it does not create a good business relationship with our operator. We led them to believe that the river would be open, so they went out and solicited barge business and now the river is closed,” DeShon said. “We have a long-term contract with them, but if we can’t send and receive barges that contract probably doesn’t mean anything.”
Sawyer acknowledged the importance of the role the port plays for economic development in the county and city, even tipping his hat to Transport 360 for creative ways its staff has been able to move cargo.
“There are some real advantages to moving freight on the river, a lot of positives but it has to be consistent,” Sawyer said. “It is impressive what they (Transport 360) are doing right now looking at the situation from all different angles. They put a new pad down there to unload turbine blades to truck them out of there.”
A recent press release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said, “September precipitation was well below normal in the Missouri River Basin. As a result, September runoff in the upper Missouri River Basin above Sioux City, Iowa was 69% of average.”
There are numerous factors to why the corps can or can’t run water through the river to help low points to the south. One solution the agency had was to use tug boats to pull the barges through low points, but DeShon said that takes too long to work efficiently.