by CHRIS ROGERS
It has been a strange and difficult year on the Mississippi River. The same flood waters that have made key stretches of the river impassable for barge traffic for much of this year also dumped prodigious amounts of sand and sediment in the main channel. Now, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) crews and contractors are working around the clock to clear that sediment in time for barge shipping season to begin in earnest.
“We’ve been trying to get the river ready since May,” Fountain City-based USACE St. Paul District Dredging Manager Dan Cottrell said. Now, the race is on. Flood waters in southern reaches of the river that have blocked barge traffic for months are finally receding. There has been some short-distance barge traffic this year, but choke points in Missouri and Louisiana have prevented serious up-and-down-the-river trade. As of May 31, a grand total of six barges had passed through the Port of Winona, compared to 172 barges at that time last year, but that will hopefully be changing soon. Shipping companies are eager to make up for lost time, and local farmers cannot wait to load their grain onto the coming barges. “Right now, we’re kind of on the verge of having a lot of tow boats in the area,” Cottrell stated.
However, the flooding has made the Big Muddy extra muddy, and all that sediment has been filling in the main channel. In a normal season, the USACE’s St. Paul District dredges 980,000 cubic yards of sediment out of the Mississippi River, from the Twin Cities to Guttenberg, Iowa, over the course of the whole year. It is only a couple months into the dredging season, and so far this year Cottrell’s teams have dredged or are in the process of dredging 630,000 yards of sediment. “We’re just barely into July. In a typical year, we’d be dredging but not nearly to this volume,” Cottrell stated.
To get the river ready for barge traffic, the USACE Dredge Goetz — the St. Paul District’s mighty hydraulic dredge — was sent down to the Illinois-based Rock Island District, where the need was more urgent. Meanwhile, St. Paul District crews and contractors have been working 24 hours a day using mechanical dredging plants — essentially giant excavators on barges — to clear the main channel from St. Paul to Prairie du Chien, Iowa, and beyond.
The flood waters also displaced navigational buoys. A U.S. Coast Guard vessel was recently in Winona replacing the markers.
This year, the river has been unpredictable with high water levels that begin to recede only to rise again. “All of those created pulses where we’d dredge; we’d get something cleaned up, and then more sediment would drop out,” Cottrell said. “It’s been relentless as far as trying to solve it or correct an area, and then having to go back to an area, and then having to go back to an area a third time. We’ve already done it in a number of spots,” he added.
In an effort to keep up with all the work, Cottrell said his crews have been dredging to shallower depths and in narrower swaths to save time. Normally, the USACE tries to dig deeper than necessary so that it does not have to dredge an area as often, he explained. This year, he added, “We don’t feel we have enough time to dredge as best we can. So we dig it — for lack of a better term — dig just enough to get by so we can move to the next location.”
Cottrell urged boaters to exercise caution around dredges and towboats. “Stay away from the dredges,” he said. “Give the towboats plenty of room. We had a near miss last week … Give them all a lot of room and be safe on the water.”