Mississippi River levels are beginning to revert back to low levels; keep watch on Panama Canal

The Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition says he’s monitoring two key waterways for shipping agriculture commodities.

Mississippi river MS _adobe stock

Adobe Stock

Mike Steenhoek calls it a “river level whiplash” on the Mississippi River. He expressed concern several months ago, as water levels rose during the winter snow melt, that the pendulum could quickly swing back to low water levels, similar to those of last summer when shipping was halted. He says that appears to be happening right now.

“The below river gauge readings at St. Louis and Memphis illustrate how barge transportation could be challenging when our export season picks up in late summer and fall”, Steenhoek said. “Last year was clearly a low water event. Water levels this year are lower in St. Louis and comparable in Memphis this year compared to 2022.”

Steenhoek says barge companies are already having to reduce tow sizes and freight loads. He says it serves as a reminder that drought not only inhibits the ability to grow a crop, but also the ability to transport that crop. The Mississippi River is not the only shipping route he is watching.

The Panama Canal is also experiencing low levels due to drought. “Since the Panama Canal is not a sea level canal and instead utilizes locks, the operation of the canal is a function of available precipitation that occurs to fill Gatun Lake – the reservoir that feeds fresh water to the canal locks,” he said.

Right now, that lake’s level is five feet below the average for July. Every time a large ship passes through the Panamax lock, 50 million gallons of water exits and eventually joins with the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. Due to multi-year drought conditions, Steenhoek says the Panama Canal Authority is having to resort to water-saving measures.

The Panama Canal is a critical link in the supply chain for U.S. soybeans and grain – facilitating a significant volume of exports originating from the Gulf of Mexico to be shipped to customers in Asia.

Steenhoek says anything can happen over the next several months, especially if we get more rainfall. But he says both situations are worth monitoring.