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Shipping Out, Part 7: "In 28 Days, I Only Went 10 Miles On The Mississippi River"

River delays cost time and money. With smaller locks on the Upper Mississippi River, we can expect to lose as much as $500,000 a day until problems are addressed.

By Frank Lessiter, Editorial Director

Coming up to lock number five at Minnesota City, Minn., tow boat pilot Tom Persons tells us the crew always needs to be cautious. These tow boat jobs are extremely dangerous and require special skills with an extremely high emphasis on safety.

But at the same time, he says a pilot often needs to try something that’s not normally done to make the proper move when going into the locks. This lock that we are approaching is 187 miles south of lock number 1 at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

Shipping Out

Unlike when you get in trouble with a car, you often need to hit the tow boat throttle to remedy a problem, explains the tow boat pilot.

Persons keeps a personal three-ring notebook filled with diagrams and detailed notes based on personal experiences on how to move through each of the more than two dozen locks between St. Paul and St. Louis. lock. For lock number five, his diagram recommends steering the tow to the right side of the river along a rock wall well ahead of reaching the lock’s long concrete wall.

His notes state: “Slow-steer this lock even in hot weather. Watch so the head of the tow doesn’t go behind the long wall if your tow starts rubbing in the rocks. Try to run the lead barge 35 feet to the left of the rock shore.”

A mile above the lock, Persons slows the tow to 3.6 mph and the deckhands put on life vests and move out on the barges.

With binoculars, Persons checks the “out draft” sign more than a half-mile ahead at the lock entrance. Spotting an orange ball, this means the draft of the river is running closer to the dam alongside the lock gates than is normal.

Knowing the river’s draft and current helps Persons decide how to approach the lock. If the draft was normal, he would steer in a normal line. But the orange ball tells him that he’ll have to do things differently. He can steer directly to the long concrete wall stretching out from the right-hand side of the lock gates or he can aim at a pipe on shore, drop the line back and allow for the out draft.

The first messages soon come from a deckhand standing on the right front corner of the lead barge. He tells the pilot that the lead right-hand barge is 630 feet north of the start of the concrete wall. He keeps a constant chant going as we move closer to the lock.

Just 10 minute later, the first barges are in the lock. And 5 minutes later, the barge is being split in half by the deckhands. Persons is soon backing the remaining six barges and tow boat out of the lock so the gates can be closed. We’re soon idling 275 feet north of the lock gates, being careful to avoid drifting with the current toward the dam.

Just 10 minutes later, the gates close and the water level starts to drop. After another 20 minutes, the first group of barges is floated out of the lock by the downstream current and is tied up along the south wall below the lock gates.

Next, the lock gates are closed and the lock men start to refill the lock with water.
Once this is completed, Persons pushes the remaining six barges and tow boat into the lock. We’re soon in the lock, the gates are closed and the water level starts to drop.

Some 15 minutes later, the gates are opened and Persons moves the remaining half dozen barges and tow boat out of the lock toward the first set of barges that are tied downstream on the lock wall. Five minutes later, the crew starts to tie down the eight cable lines that secure the dozen barges together as one unit and we’re again moving downstream.

While piloting the tow, Persons explains how delays due to excessive river traffic or lock maintenance can really mess up a schedule. He recalls a late-summer, extremely busy river time earlier in his piloting career when the lock at East Alton, Ill., was still a 600-foot lock — before being expanded to 1,200 feet.

He recalls that when they the crew pulled up to that lock from the north, the U.S. Corps of Engineers staff assigned them a number and they sat there for 2 weeks before it was their turn to move the tow through the lock. Once they cleared the lock, the owners transferred him to another tow heading north. He spent another 14 days on that tow boat before they cleared the lock. In 28 days, he only traveled 10 miles on the river.

To expand U.S. crop production and exports, Persons says the federal government must spend billions of dollars upgrading lock sizes.

“We could save a ton of time and money with 1,200-foot locks,” he says. “Longer locks would easily save 35 hours of time between Minneapolis and St. Louis.”
Persons estimates there are 100 tow boats and 300 pilots and captains working on the Upper Mississippi River, so every delay is costly.

The American Waterways Operators organization estimates the barge industry loses up to $500,000 for each day that it is unable to operate at full capacity. You can imagine what the total loss was back in 2003 when there was a complete four-day shutdown for critical dredging along parts of the entire river.
While President Obama has budgeted $4.6 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of

Engineers for Mississippi River work, it’s only for finishing previously approved projects. Despite the fact that the Congressional Water Resources Development Act of 2003 directed the Corps of Engineers to rebuild and expand five upper Mississippi river locks and dams, along with two locks on the Illinois river, nothing has happened.

Besides offering flood control and recreational opportunities, the 9-foot deep navigation channel allows billions of dollars of products to move up and down the river. More than 36 million tons of bulk commodities, such as coal, petroleum, fertilizer, chemicals, iron, steel and nearly $9 billion of ag products move through these locks each year.

It has long been known that moving commodities by barge is the most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly method of transportation within the U.S. interior. But we’ve got to update the river lock system so it can handle twice as much grain in the future.

An example of the tremendous amount of goods that moves through the system is shown with a description of what takes place at lock number 27, which is located near Granite City, Ill. Some 50,5000 barges from the Mississippi and Illinois river pass through this lock each year. This includes 14,717 barges of corn, soybeans and fertilizer that is the equivalent of carrying the same amounts of commodities in 932,43 semi-trailers or 212,060 railcars.

When I later ask about spending time on the river, Persons says there are many three- and four-generation families like his that are still working on the river. Instead of working 30 days and then having 30 days off, he prefers to work 45 straight days and then spend 3 weeks at home.

He says that time spent at home is really quality time because you don’t have to think or worry about going to work tomorrow,” he says. “I like working on the Upper Mississippi River, even though it’s a long way from my home in southern Missouri,” he says. “Going home for 3 weeks is a little rough, as you’re usually getting up a lot after working the 6-hour shifts on the river.”

With 16 years of river experience, Persons knows the routine that works best for him. He finds it’s important to try to get some sleep during each 6-hour rest and relaxation shift — and he tries to get at least 4 hours of sleep each time.”
Persons says everything on the river boils down to timing. This means handling every maneuver just right, especially around the locks.

The tow boat pilot says he’s been fortunate and lucky to work with a great bunch of guys over the years who helped him learn and shared their knowledge of the river. In the old days, he says, you pretty much had to learn on your own.

In the next installment of Shipping Out: Why the Panama Canal Expansion makes Upper Mississippi River Updates Even More Critical. Shipping Out segments will appear once every two-to-three weeks. Make sure to check back often!


How Wheat Exports Grow In Value

Grain produced on a Minnesota farm and exported to Mainz, Germany

Grain Movement Additional Charge
(Cents Per Bushel)
Value Per Bushel
Minnesota farm n/a $5.30
Minneapolis elevator $0.10 $5.40
Barge freight, Minneapolis to New Orleans $0.65 $6.05
New Orleans elevator $0.05 $6.10
Ocean freight, New Orleans to European water terminal in Rotterdam $0.35 $6.45
Barge cost from Rotterdam to mid-Germany $0.40 $6.85


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