It hasn’t rained for weeks in parts of eastern Iowa, and shipping on the Mississippi River is suffering from low water levels. Larry Daily, president of Alter Barge Lines in Bettendorf, says the river can’t carry the cargo they normally transport. They’re already reducing the “draft” of loaded barges, normally about 9-feet-6-inches deep in the water, to just 9-feet. Daily says pretty soon they might have to make it only 8 feet, 9 inches. To accomplish that, they have to put a smaller load in each of the 320 barges the company uses, and Daily says that means losing money. He says for every 6 inches of depth that barge sinks into the river, it means about 100 tons of cargo inside, and a normal one carries about 1500 tons when it’s full. That’s down to 1400 tons if they’ve left it partly empty so it’ll float higher in the water. “From here to the Gulf of Mexico…is about a $15-a-ton barge rate,” Daily says, “so that’s about $1500 dollars for every barge.” In addition to being only partly filled, the barges are pushed by towboats, and he says they can’t operate in water much shallower than it is now. A “tow” of barges normally means many of the rectangular floating craft connected into one floating shipment, and Daily says they may change that. They could cut the number of barges from 15 to eight to cut the size of the tow from the normal 105 feet to 70 feet in width — to get through a river channel that’s not so wide. But rain’s the only thing that will bring a permanent solution. It doesn’t have to rain right into the river, Daily says — any rainfall upstream or within the river basin will run into the Mississippi. But right now the drought’s severe from central and eastern Iowa over into western Illinois, and he says so far the Quad Cities area is on track to get the least rainfall it’s ever recorded. A couple of weeks ago a barge ran aground in the river, halting all shipments north- and southbound on the Mississippi for several days.
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