Barge shipments in Winona fell to a near record low last year after flooding made stretches of the Mississippi River impassable for much of the spring.
Barge traffic near record low
by CHRIS ROGERS
A dragged out flooding season caused Winona’s barge traffic to fall to a near-record low last year.
Last spring, it seemed like river levels would never go down, and flooding in Missouri prevented significant barge travel until June — two to three months later than normal. Then, dredges hustled to clear massive amounts of sediment left behind by that flooding, which continued to clog the main channel even after the high water receded. While shippers did their best to make up for lost time in the second half of the year, only 828 barges moved through the Winona harbor last season — down 36 percent from 2018, according to data from the city of Winona.
That’s the second-slowest year in nearly two decades. The slowest — 722 barges in 2013 — came after a poor harvest reduced the amount of grain leaving local elevators, which makes up the bulk of barge shipments in Winona.
“It was a really, really odd year for shipping,” Winona Economic Development Coordinator Myron White noted.
With next to nothing moving on the river in the spring, it created a logistical log jam, CHS Barge Trade Merchandiser Ben Doane explained in an interview last summer. In the spring, some shippers tried to adjust by sending cargo by rail at higher prices, but Doane said, “There’s been just unusual trade flows the industry isn’t used to just because of the lack of having a working river.”
At the city-owned, privately run barge-loading docks — which make up a fraction of total barge traffic in Winona — it was also an odd year. A byproduct of ethanol production used as cattle feed, distiller’s grain has been one of the city docks’ most successful products in recent years, but shipments of it fell by more than half last year and most other commodities dropped off, too. The docks’ most unusual cargo — hundreds of gigantic wind turbine blades — helped soften the blow, but didn’t fully make up for the lost business in other areas, White reported.
The decline in distiller’s grain was partly due to U.S. trade disputes, White stated. Distiller’s grain is more popular as cattle feed in Asia than in North America, and tariffs made the U.S. product less competitive in those markets, he explained.
It is still unclear what this year’s shipping and flooding seasons will bring, but the Mississippi River is currently well above normal levels.