WABASHA, MINN. – In the bowels of the Dredge William L. Goetz, anchored off the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, the deafening drone of twin Caterpillar power generators are cranking at their full 1,200 rpm, generating more than enough megawatts to light a town the size of nearby Wabasha.
Heavy steel cables strain as the dredge’s cutterhead, a nasty-looking steel-toothed ball carried on a large boom, churns into a sandbar below the river’s surface.
The cutterhead stirs up the sand, which is then sucked into a network of large pipes strung along a line of barges that carry it to shore, adding to a mountain already about 50 feet high.
Over the past several weeks, a 52-member crew from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been feverishly battling the clock and Mother Nature to clear the river of silt deposited by this year’s relentless floodwaters. That buildup has caused one of the worst barge traffic stoppages in memory, and one that could have far-ranging economic effects.
As of Monday, there was a glimmer of hope that the river could be cleared for commercial river traffic by this weekend.
But for now, the Corps said, 17 towboats with more than 150 barges — most of them loaded with cargo — sit moored to the shore along the Upper Mississippi, unable to budge because the shoals have made it impossible to move at the height of the river shipping season.
More are waiting in St. Paul.
“We have something like $50 million in commodities that are waiting to go,” said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services, which runs towboats in and out of St. Paul’s harbor.
While barges carrying such things as corn and soybeans, scrap steel and petroleum coke are waiting to head south, their return loads are just as vital to the region’s economy, Nelson said.
Barges are one of the chief transports for cement and road salt from the South. A shortage of cement could reverberate through the construction industry, and a reduced supply of road salt, already depleted from a prolonged winter with heavy snow, could strain the budgets of state and local agencies.
And looming on the horizon is the fall harvest. An estimated 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped on the Mississippi through New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.
“Grain needs to be south for export in a few weeks,” said Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, the shipping business of Wayzata-based Cargill Inc., which has a fleet of 1,250 barges on the river.
While commercial traffic disruptions are part of doing business on the river, this stoppage has been unusually difficult, Calhoun said, because “We’ve just lost so many days.”
If shippers can’t get promised grain to ships destined for foreign ports on time, he said, it means buying grain from other sources to meet those obligations. That makes it imperative to clear the river as quickly as possible.
“The problem is, when you squeeze the balloon here, the air comes out someplace else,” Calhoun said.
There are other means of transport, but barges are economical, efficient and readily available — when the river is clear. Ten barges can carry the same tonnage as 150 rail cars or 600 semitrailer trucks.
The stoppage, Calhoun added, points vividly to how fragile, and important, the Mississippi shipping lane is to commerce. Calhoun, a longtime advocate of improving the lock and dam infrastructure that dates to the 1930s, said a malfunction of locks on the Upper Mississippi — which don’t have second locking chambers, unlike those farther south — could halt traffic for even longer than what is now being seen.
“[That] would absolutely have a devastating effect on Minnesota and Minnesota’s economy,” he said.