Stevedoring companies and cargo carriers in Northwest Indiana and the Chicago area may be missing business opportunities as a result of lower than expected water levels on the Mississippi River and other sections of the inland waterway system.
John Kindra, owner of Kindra Lake Towing LP in Chicago, said lack of snowfall in the winter season coupled with a dearth in rainfall in recent months has caused shipping challenges in key points that provide access to Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan. He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to reduce rock formations near Thebes, Ill., which is in southern Illinois on the Mississippi River, to improve navigability and restore enough depths so barges can pass through.
Kindra, who is also president of the Illinois River Carriers' Association, said it's a good thing that the depth of the Illinois River and Indiana ports on Lake Michigan have adequate water levels, but the challenges are apparent if shippers decide to avoid the inland waterway system. The association represents barge line and towboat companies that operate on the Illinois River.
"We have slowed down quite a bit," Kindra said. "We're amazed at how slow things have gotten. In theory, if the shippers are not diverting the cargo to the railroads, we would need more barges to move the same amount of cargo. ... (But) I think it's also a product of the economy slowing down."
Ken Stone, operations manager for Jack Gray Transport subsidiary Lakes and Rivers Transfer, said he doesn't recall having to deal with water level issues of this magnitude in his 19 years with the firm. The firm handles the loading and unloading of bulk materials such as iron ore, coke and dry fertilizers from barges at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor.
Customers have had to reduce the amount of cargo being loaded on barges as a result of the lower river levels, Stone said. Normally, he said the shipping industry usually seeks a 9-foot clearance to operate within rivers and barges are loaded with about 17 tons of cargo per inch of water.
But if vessels had to prepare to meet a 7-foot clearance during a shipment, Stone said that could mean that 400 fewer tons of cargo to unload, which means less revenue for the firm which bills customers based on the amount of cargo it handles.
"In all reality, it's out of our control," Stone said. "In this particular case, it's Mother Nature."
Kindra said prolonged shipping troubles could result in higher prices for goods consumers rely on because oil and grain are among the commodities that are normally transported using inland waterways.
"As a small business, the one thing you hate is uncertainty," Kindra said.