Low Water Levels on Mississippi River Delaying Barge Cargo

Shipping Costs Surge as Chokepoints Cause Delays of 2-3 Days
Houseboats stuck in mud
An aerial view shows floating homes and boats resting in mud in Memphis, Tenn., in October 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images via Bloomberg News)

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America’s crop exports are once again at risk due to a diminished Mississippi River.

Months of dry weather and the hottest summer ever shrunk the vital channel that funnels barges of grain and soybeans from the Midwestern crop belt to Gulf Coast ports. Barge operators now are running lighter loads to compensate for the lack of water. Prices paid to farmers for their crops are easing as a result, with seasonal pressure from the autumn harvest further weighing on the market.

Shipping costs for barges along the river surged in September, with spot rates rising as much as 64% in a week in Memphis, Tenn., according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Higher transport costs help make U.S. crops more expensive than shipping out of countries such as Brazil — when bigger South American harvests were already taking market share from North America.

In Memphis, water levels sank to 10.51 feet below base levels, according to the National Weather Service. That’s the lowest since the historic low-water crest of minus 10.81 feet on Oct. 21 last year. Shipping company American Commercial Barge Line predicted water levels could hit last year’s record low by the weekend, prompting more transportation snags.

MIssissippi River freight costs chart

“Expect delay to transit of 48 to 72 hours due to reduced navigable space in certain areas,” ACBL said in a post on its website.

—With assistance from Dominic Carey.

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