Ag groups urge action to maintain barge navigation

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The National Grain and Feed Association (N.G.F.A.) this week joined 20 other agricultural and waterway organizations in urging the federal government to take immediate action to maintain navigation on the Mississippi river between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill.

Navigation on the 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi river “will be severely impaired — and barge transportation may well cease altogether — by mid-December unless the administration takes emergency action to ensure the statutorily authorized 9-foot draft needed to maintain commercial navigation,” according to a letter submitted to President Barack Obama and other key federal officials and members of Congress by the organizations.

Specifically, the organizations urged that action be taken under Section 501(b) of the Stafford Act directing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers release measured, but sufficient, flows from Missouri river reservoirs to maintain a 9-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi river to sustain commercial navigation. The letter noted that if winter moisture does not materialize to adequately replenish the reservoirs, the Corps could consider releasing less water from the dams during the spring navigation season.

The letter also urged waiver of federal acquisition rules to expedite the agency’s contract-award procedures and order that the Army Corps of Engineers take immediate action to remove rock formations near Grand Tower and Thebes, Ill., which present hazards to navigation. Otherwise, the letter noted, the Corps has indicated it would take until as late as the end of March to complete the project. But, the letter emphasized, “while removal of these rock pinnacles should be helpful, this action in-and-of-itself is not expected to fully alleviate the need for Missouri river flows to maintain navigation.”

The letter stressed that maintaining navigation for the next few months is “particularly critical” for securing crop inputs for the 2013 planting season and marketing the 2012 grain and oilseed crops. In an average weather year, nearly 60% of U.S. grain and oilseed exports are transported via the Mississippi river system.

While drought-reduced crop yields plagued much of the U.S. growing region in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that more than 65 million tonnes of grains and nearly 37 million tonnes of soybeans are likely to be exported in the current marketing year. In total, it was projected that approximately 300 million bus of grains and oilseeds worth $2.3 billion would be delayed in reaching their intended markets in December and January if Mississippi river navigation is disrupted. Meanwhile, it was estimated more than 500,000 tons of fertilizer moving northbound would be disrupted during the same two-month period.

“Reduced supplies in export positions would pressure farm prices and erode the United States’ ability and reputation as a reliable supplier of agricultural products to serve foreign buyers, which is integrally important to U.S. and global economic growth, domestic jobs and global food security,” the letter said.

The organizations also emphasized that losing access to efficient, low-cost barge transportation would adversely affect U.S. farmers and agribusinesses through higher transportation costs. It noted that barges provide a competitive alternative that disciplines rates charged by other modes, In addition, the organizations said, it would be “neither feasible nor cost-effective” to divert the volume of affected agricultural commodities to truck and rail given capacity and routing constraints. The letter noted a single dry-bulk barge — the type typically used in transport grains, oilseed and fertilizer — can haul 1,750 tons of product, compared with 110 tons in a bulk rail car and 25 tons in a truck trailer.

In addition, the organizations pointed out, “ the cascading impacts and costs that would be felt by American consumers and our fellow citizens as a result of impacts on other industrial products – such as coal, imported fuel, road salt and other goods.”

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