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How low water on the Mississippi River could affect the Tri-State

A barge on the Ohio River at Ripley, Ohio.
Carl Schlabach
A barge on the Ohio River at Ripley, Ohio.

Drought conditions along the Mississippi River sent the Army Corps of Engineers scrambling recently to dredge a channel to keep barges flowing. WVXU spoke with the Central Ohio River Business Association about what concerns on the "Mighty Mississippi" could mean for commerce on the Ohio River.

Eric Thomas is executive director for the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA). He says the recent delays on the Mississippi didn't really affect the transportation of goods locally.

"The Ohio River typically doesn't see these kinds of issues because we have plenty of water, and the lock and dam system is maintained at an adequate level for navigation," he explains. "We haven't seen drought conditions along the Ohio River sufficient enough to really impede that."

The series of locks and dams along the Ohio ensure each section of river between dams — referred to as a pool — maintains plenty of water. The Mississippi, however, does not have such a system and can drain out during droughts.

There can also be delays sometimes caused by sandbars if the water gets low where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill.

Along with dredging part of the lower Mississippi to make a passable channel, Thomas says barges are being loaded slightly lighter so they don't sit as deep in the water. That means fewer products are moving per shipment.

Despite the holdup, goods are flowing. Thomas says consumers likely won't see any effects, other than perhaps noticing barges stacked up if you drive along the river.

"You're generally talking about large bulk products that are moving — perhaps chemicals or fertilizers or grains — and those kinds of things are typically things that there's an inventory on the ground that allows for those delays."

Plus, he says, shippers are used to delays.

Cincinnati is still a river town

Goods are moved around a variety of ways, but shipping on the river remains a big business.

"There's 36 million tons of cargo that arrives or ships out through the ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky," Thomas notes. "We are a significant maritime port."

While there's plenty of water now, that could change over time. People need only look at the Colorado River as a warning sign. Once a vast and flowing supply of water for huge swathes of the West — including providing drinking water for 40 million people — it is now perilously low.

Thomas doesn't see something similar happening here any time in the near future, but it's something to think about.

"If the drought persists and the Mississippi River gets worse, and we see more and more backups where things can't transit, we could start seeing some of those other impacts."

He points to Nucor, a steel company in Gallatin County, Ky., as a theoretical example. The company moves a lot of raw and finished materials using the Ohio River. In fact, the stretch of Ohio River running from east of Cincinnati to Paducah, Ky., was declared a federal marine highway in February.

If low water elsewhere causes significant delays and backup on the Ohio, a company like Nucor couldn't move its product as efficiently, nor can it operate like it should.

"If that drought persists to the point where we can't get those kinds of materials moving, then it could be a problem," he says, but adds, "I think we're still quite a ways away from that."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.