Steenhoek: River depth whiplash continues

August 15, 2023

Last fall there were historically low water level conditions on the Mississippi River, the primary artery of the U.S. inland waterway system. Those low levels of last fall gave way to high water for a couple of early spring months following rapid snowmelt while the ground was still cold, resulting in it behaving more like a tabletop versus a sponge, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC). “But the reality is that a big percentage of the Midwest and Plains states remains in dry conditions,” said Steenhoek, in an interview with the South Dakota Soybean Network, “and so there’s a lot of ground that needs moisture, and our reservoirs are pretty low as well. Now that we’ve had some persistent dryness, as expected you’re seeing low water levels on the Mississippi River and very comparable, and at times, lower than what we were last year, which was a very dry year.”

Most South Dakota-grown soybeans are exported via rail to the Pacific Northwest, but any disruption of shipping to New Orleans ports has a negative impact on the export economics of soybeans and other commodities. “We become really concerned, and rightfully so, when you see the potential of barge transportation’s efficiencies and economics being inhibited because what that translates to is a less competitive export program,” said Steenhoek. “And so that’s something that we’re obviously concerned about and we, as a result, routinely monitor the conditions on the inland waterway system, particularly on the Mississippi River.”

Water levels this year are lower in St. Louis and levels at Memphis this year are comparable to 2022, according to figures supplied by Steenhoek. For comparison, on this date in 2021, the river level in St. Louis was 20.5 ft. In 2020, it was at 21.35 ft. In Memphis, the river gauge on July 6, 2021, was 18.29 ft. On July 6, 2020, it was at 19.7 ft.

Barge companies are having to reduce tow sizes and freight loaded in the barges themselves in response to the Mississippi River’s shallow state, said Steenhoek, adding that it’s important for farmers to remain well informed on the situation. “It’s always good to have not just an Option A, but an Option B and an Option C,” he said. “That’s a very well-established principle that’s good year in and year out.”

Timing is critical. When river levels fluctuate during harvest, at a time when the largest volume of soybeans is moving down the river, Steenhoek says there can be an impact on markets. “The price offered for new crop soybeans and grain, one of the things that does factor into it is how efficient or inefficient the transportation system will be when those beans need to be moved. Will our inland waterway system be up to the task as it normally is,” said Steenhoek. “The fact of the matter is drought inhibits the ability to grow a crop, it can also inhibit the ability to transport that crop.”