Serious drought affects economy across Midwest

August 21, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOUND CITY, Ill. - Barges lined up near here, like so many cargo planes awaiting takeoff, face a tough stretch of "runway" in the Ohio River, low in water and clotted with sand bars.

Barge waiting time can be counted not in hours, but in days and thousands of dollars as towboats' huge engines run against the current going nowhere, as customers await coal, scrap iron, steel, chemicals, stone and oil and scramble to make do. The price of drought can be counted many ways in sections of the Midwest suffering the worst dry spell since the late 1980s.

Recent rain in parts of Missouri and Illinois greened some grass and improved soybean prospects, but it came too late to help the corn gone from green to brown to near black, the burnt pastures, the dwindled hay stocks, the casino boat that had to shut down for a few days this month.

Water flow in some rivers has hit near 60-year lows, weeks before usual low-water months.

Rain fell in sheets the other afternoon along this stretch of the Ohio River, but not in amounts sufficient to stop jumps in shipping prices as tow companies try to recover losses. Commodity and consumer prices have not yet reflected any of this, but industry representatives are concerned about the effect if the drought continues.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site, forecasters see "some additional improvement" to come but with "considerable uncertainty" about the degree and timing.

It's enough to make a towing company port captain from Paducah, Ky., think the unthinkable.

"An Ivan, give us an Ivan right now," says Tommy Williams, referring to the hurricane that ripped through the Gulf of Mexico last year. "If we could get a good storm to dump some water in the Ohio Valley, some water in the Mississippi Valley ... "

He adds that, of course, he prefers his storms heavy on water and without loss of life or property.

That would be an ideal seldom seen in the universe of either farming or barge shipping. For these industries, the drought adds insult to the injury of sharply rising fuel and fertilizer prices. Yields were abundant for the past two years - the 2004 U.S. corn harvest set a record at more than 11 billion bushels - but some folks are wondering whether the drought will further thin the ranks of small farmers.

"You'll see some more farm sales," says Maurice Glosemeyer of Marthasville, Mo., who splits his time between farming and working for a crop insurance company. "It's going to be the little guy going out."

In his travels assessing crop damage around Missouri, Glosemeyer says he has seen some corn crops "zeroed," while most growers expect yields off by a third or half.

The story is about the same and in some areas worse in Illinois, second to Iowa in U.S. corn production with about 16 percent of the total. The Illinois Department of Agriculture predicts the lowest corn yields since 1995.

"This is the year we've been saving" for over the past three years, says Ron Moore, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle on 1,300 acres in Roseville, west-central Illinois. He figures corn yields will be a third off the average of 160 bushels per acre. The news on soybeans is a bit better, mostly because, unlike corn, the soybean growing cycle allows the plant to benefit from rain later in the season.

Rain has been particularly scarce in a swath from central Missouri north to the western Great Lakes and a slice of eastern Iowa. NOAA and the National Drought Mitigation Center classify conditions there as "extreme drought:" 60 percent of average rainfall for six months.

Vern Knapp, a hydrologist with the Illinois State Water Survey, says water flow in streams and rivers in the north-central part of his state are close to the lowest since recordkeeping began in the 1940s. Knapp says the Kishwaukee River in northern Illinois recently flowed 60 cubic feet per second during a time of year when a reasonable expectation would be 300 feet per second.

The Kishwaukee drains to the Rock River, which drains to the Mississippi, which joins the Ohio at southernmost Illinois, near Mound City. Water fell so low there earlier this month that the Coast Guard stopped barge traffic for a weekend, but not before a few barges ran aground.

This bottleneck lies along the Mississippi River system, part of a nationwide 25,000-mile network that carries nearly a fifth of the country's coal and more than half of its export corn, roughly 15 percent of U.S. commerce, according to the American Waterways Operators.

Days ago this Ohio River stretch was open again, but with restrictions. Down a narrow channel, with water levels close to the minimum, barges were moving under Coast Guard watch with an assist from the barge towing industry, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued dredging the channel.

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