Paralysis on America’s Rivers: There’s Too Much Water


VAN BUREN, Ark. — Marty Shell just wanted the lights back on.

Nineteen barges bound for nowhere were tied up along the swollen riverbank. Dark warehouses full of flooded fertilizer reeked with a sulfuric stench that made it painful to inhale. The river system, which for decades provided Mr. Shell a livelihood, now spreads only gelatinous mud and pungent debris and uncomfortable questions about the future.

The devastating flooding that has submerged large parts of the Midwest and South this spring has also brought barge traffic on many of the regions’ rivers to a near standstill. The water is too high and too fast to navigate. Shipments of grains, fertilizers and construction supplies are stranded. And riverfront ports, including the ones Mr. Shell oversees in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Ark., have been overtaken by the floods and severely damaged.

As Mr. Shell surveyed the wreckage last week, anything approaching normalcy remained months, or even a year, away. To start, he would be happy just to get the power restored.

“Before this happened, my mind-set was, ‘What am I doing in the next month or two?’ — trying to stay ahead,” said Mr. Shell, the president of Five Rivers Distribution, which sends products up and down rivers on barges. “Nowadays, I wake up with, ‘What am I going to do for today?’”

Facing the possibility of thousands of swamped acres with nothing planted, Mr. Schaefers said he would like to sell what he has left from last year’s rice and soybean harvest, but it is stuck in grain bins. The same river that killed this year’s crop is so swollen that barges cannot take last year’s to market.

Even farmers whose fields have remained dry have faced troubles. The halts in river traffic have been a constant headache this planting season for Mike Christenson, agronomy division manager at Countryside Cooperative, a grain elevator and storage facility in Wisconsin. When the barges that haul imported fertilizer up the Mississippi could not get through, Mr. Christenson scrambled for alternatives.

“It’s been ugly all spring,” said Mr. Christenson, who said that for the first time in a decade, he was going to the extra expense of getting fertilizer shipments delivered by truck and rail.

“It’s just going to cost more to put in the crop than normal,” said Travis Justice, the Arkansas Farm Bureau’s chief economist.

Even if the rivers reopen to barges in the next few weeks — and that is uncertain, with water levels still near record heights in some places — the effects on the economy could linger. Never has so much of the river system been closed for so long at such an important time of year.

“We thought it was as bad as it was going to get” weeks ago, said Debra Calhoun, a senior vice president at the Waterways Council, an industry group. “The forecast just continues to be horrid.”

With supply chains disrupted, warehouses overflowing and shippers turning to more expensive ways to move goods, consumers could see higher prices and shortages of some products in the summer and fall.

“I think most people take the river for granted — they just assume that the grain is going to get to market, the steel coils are going to show up to make the pipe, and peanuts are going to get here,” said Bryan Day, the executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority in Arkansas, where dozens of barges have been waiting in the harbor for the water to subside and the river to reopen.

In Arkansas, Mr. Shell has been spending his days waiting for the water to finish receding at the ports he runs. Instead of loading barges and trucks, his employees have been cleaning off the mud, surveying the damage and hoping for federal help to rebuild. It could still be weeks before barges are moving on the rivers, and his company’s losses have already reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But on a recent morning, as Mr. Shell idled his pickup truck in a cavernous warehouse still caked with river mud, there was one sign of a fresh start: The overhead lights came back on.



Sahred From Source link Science

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