Mississippi low water levels: How to prevent grounding

The Mississippi River is currently experiencing its lowest water level in over a decade due to a severe drought in the Midwest, the Swedish Club said, citing information from Fernandes Maritime Consultants.

TThis has resulted in disruptions to the upstream supply chain for moving grain and other cargo, as well as strandings of ocean-going vessels plying the navigable channels of the Lower Mississippi River (LMR) as far north as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, approximately mile 139 AHP (above the passes ).

The US Army Corp of Engineers works diligently to dredge sections of the river to maintain or restore normal traffic conditions, but battling nature isn’t always a winning hand.

How can masters avoid ships running aground?

#1 Stay up to date with the latest updates: The Army Corps and the three pilotage organizations responsible for navigating the approximately 160 miles of navigable waterway between Southwest Pass and Baton Rouge issue regular (daily) updates on navigable water depths along the Mississippi. Keep in mind that these depths are not uniform everywhere as water depths decrease upstream. This information is sent to the captain by his local agent. The captain has to ensure that they are received and applied (passage planning).

In addition, the US Coast Guard issues Marine Safety Information Bulletins (MSIB) when necessary and advises the maritime community on precautions to take in the event of extreme river or weather conditions. Accordingly, the Port Captain, Sector New Orleans, issued a Safety Advisory, Volume #XXII, Issue 053, noting the LMR’s water from Mile Marker (MM) 0.0 to MM 167.5 AHP due to lower water conditions . The Safety Advisory was needed to protect ships and seafarers from hazards associated with low tide, including possible shoals and reduced fairway widths.

#2 Staying in the fairway: Stay within the fairway when maneuvering in the Mississippi. The Army Corps has designated a navigation channel toward the middle of the Mississippi River where it assures a specified water depth, generally 45 feet (13.72 m) – 47 feet (14.33 m). Do not leave this channel (except when mooring or anchoring). Sounds easy, and yet ships leave the Channel at their own risk and peril. When asked, masters generally point to the pilot. True, but when an incident occurs, the pilot shrugs and points to the captain, who is in command, a fact enshrined in every text message. The pilot is only there to help with navigation.

#3 Swarm “Mud Chunks”: The ECDIS and river depths are based on survey results conducted periodically but not continuously by the Army Corps. On the other side of the Mississippi along its almost 4,000 km. The route from the Canadian border carries an average of about 600,000 tons of mud and silt each day. This sludge is dumped onto the river bed particularly where there is a change in flow, for example at a bend in the river or where it meets a sudden change in depth or in the river delta. The deposited silt is generally soft and is colloquially called “gumbo sludge”. Such swarms are also known locally as “mud lumps”. At low tide, such sludge clumping can be critical.

#4 Overload: At loading docks, there is often considerable pressure on ships’ captains to overload under various pretexts, a major one being the minimum depth available at zero altitude. Do not succumb to such pressure. Those people who offer such assurances disappear in the night as soon as a ship hits the bottom. Again, the importance of proper passage planning, UKC and squat cannot always be overstated, but especially so during the prevailing low tide conditions.

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