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Life on the Mississippi: Navigating Its Historic Ebbs and Lows

Carla McDonald
The Dredge Hurley, a "dustpan dredge" operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been working around the clock to keep areas of the Mississippi deep enough for shipping.

The Mississippi River has recently become something of an attraction due to the record low water levels. Down on Front Street in Memphis, the historic riverboat landing is visible down to its last cobblestone. Up around Shelby Forest, vast beaches have appeared that were once the riverbed.

What can’t be seen from the shoreline is the coordinated effort of government agencies to keep this waterway open for business.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the primary player here. At the helm of the low-water response in this area is Matt Young, chief of navigation for the Memphis District.

"A lot of our work here is getting surveys of those critical areas, and then also dredging those areas to keep the channel open for industry," Young says.

The Corps of Engineers is a division of the military, but many of its employees are civilians. One mission is to keep critical infrastructure functioning, and it has a long history on the Mississippi. When the river floods, the corps inspects and repairs levees and spillways. But the low water requires a different effort, in coordination with industry interests and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Young says the Corps typically deal with maintaining the width of the river, whereas now the primary concern is depth.

Survey boats make real-time maps of the riverbed, which is constantly changing. Just north of Memphis, beyond sight of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, there’s a long, slow-moving stretch of river called Redman Bar. It’s a spot where sand and debris build up in the channel.

This is where the Dredge Hurley was working last week. Its one of three "dustpan dredges" operated by the Corps on the Mississippi. It takes its name from the dustpan-like vacuum siphon on the bow of the 353-foot long boat. When the vacuum is dropped down to the riverbed, it uses high-powered jets to stir up the sediment, which is then sucked up through a 32-inch pipe that runs down the middle of the boat and out across a pontoon flotilla. The sediment is moved to outside the shipping lane, hundreds of feet away.

Perani and Young.jpg
Carla McDonald
Captain Adrian Perani, left, with Matt Young, chief of navigation of the Memphis District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aboard the Dredge Hurley.

Captain Adrian Perani says normally in winter months the ship would be in port getting inspected and repaired. These days the ship is in service around the clock. As captain, he has to be on the boat when it is moving — and it's been on the move for the last month. The Lower Mississippi River is approximately 900 miles of waterway from Cairo, Ill. to New Orleans, La.

"We're prepared to do whatever it takes," Perani says.

The dredge's presence at Redman Bar is a sign of trouble for the tow boats that need to past this area. If the Mississippi were a major highway, dredging usually comes with a lane closure, or even a complete shutdown, which happened twice last month.

All up and down the river north and south of Memphis, tow boats and their barges have been parked on the banks waiting their turn to pass Redman Bar and other areas where it has become too narrow for two-way traffic.

Dredge .jpg
Carla McDonald
Sediment is pumped through a 32-inch pipe through the middle of the dredge across a series of pontoons to a shallower part of the river.

Some river terminology here: Barges are the big rafts full of commodities. They are tethered together in what is called a tow. These tows are pushed by towboats. When the water is really flowing, southbound tows -- the ones going downriver — can get up to 1,400 feet long, Longer than the average aircraft carrier.

Randy Chamness, co-chair of the Lower Mississippi River Committee, says the low water means the tows (groups of barges) have to be smaller due to the narrower shipping lanes. The barges themselves also have to carry less freight so that they don’t hit bottom. While the dredging is necessary, he says, it also creates shipping delays.

"It's really going to cause a jam in the system when that product can't move," he says.

This fall has been a logistical nightmare for regional farmers. The annual harvest of corn, soybeans and grain still needs to be shipped out. But in some ports barges aren’t able to float. And the low water could last through the new year.

"We want to be as productive as we can obviously, but you can only go so far with that," Chamness says. "So we will be forced to reduce tow size and draft once again if the river levels continue to fall."

The low water doesn’t just pose an economic danger. When massive tows run aground, they can break apart and start floating uncontrolled downriver, posing a risk to other boats, bridges and create more stoppages.

That’s why the U.S. Coast Guard has been working closely with the Corps of Engineers to quickly reposition navigational buoys that keep river traffic centered over deep water. Lt. Phillip VanderWeit says more personnel has been deployed to keep up with the ever-changing shape of the river.

"We are all hands on deck," he says. "This is 24-7 work that we're doing. We understand how important it is to the American economy. So we're definitely fully committed to try and mitigate the impacts of this low water cause by drought."

For those who may head down to the riverbank to explore this historic low-water event, take a few minutes to appreciate the invisible choreography now taking place, maybe just beyond the river bend.

Aboard tows, tour boats, and government vessels like the Dredge Hurley, radios are crackling with the constant flow of new information, warnings, and reports. The Mighty Mississippi may still look pretty big. But these days, there’s far less room for error.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher's favorite haunt is the intersection of history and cultural change. He is WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.