The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to perform routine work that may result in daytime traffic restrictions on the Mississippi River over the next 13 days, the Waterways Council, Inc., said Friday.
The work involves laying concrete mats that protect the river bank for flood protection. According to the Waterways Council, mile markers 632-635 near Memphis are affected.
The stretch was closed at 6 a.m. Friday to begin the work. As of Friday evening, 22 tows were waiting in the queue. The Corps has committed to clear these tows, WCI said.
On Saturday, the Corps will move navigation buoys to widen the channel, and then send a test tow through the area northbound to see if it is feasible to move barge tows safely. The Corps will make a final decision about continuing or postponing this work sometime this weekend, WCI said.
The Corps would like to allow northbound traffic to move during daylight hours and southbound traffic to move at night, WCI said.
Both the Waterways Council and the National Corn Growers on Friday said the work was announced with limited notice to operators and shippers, and has impeded shippers' ability to quickly move grains from fall harvest areas to export channels and end-users.
"This comes at a terrible time for U.S. corn farmers," NCGA President Chip Bowling said in a statement. "We produced a record crop in 2014, much of which will be transported along the Mississippi River. It is imperative that barge traffic not be impeded, and as much grain as possible is transported before winter."
Many tows are carrying 30-40 barges fully laden with grain down-river, WCI said, while salt and other commodities are moving up-river.
NCGA estimated the closure could result in backups as long as 75 miles.
"A delay of this magnitude will have a significant financial impact on farmers, who already face prices below the cost of production," NCGA's Bowling said in a letter to the Army Corps urging postponement of the work.
The potential closure is another blow to farmers, who have faced rail transportation issues in the Upper Midwest, resulting in a October directive from the Surface Transportation Board for additional rail monitoring.
The Mississippi River has long been a key artery for shipments of U.S. grain and investments in maintenance for the aging lock and dam system has been a publicized priority of several grain and farm groups.
In effort to improve maintenance, several of the groups earlier this year supported passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, aimed at authorizing waterways improvement projects.
NCGA estimates that about 1 billion bushels of grain, or 60% of the bulk agricultural exports, are moved to world ports via the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
News sources: WCI/NCGA