Drought Impacting river industry

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Reporter - Jason Hibbs
Photojournalist - Mason Watkins

PADUCAH, Ky. — A year ago folks in the river industry, like all of us, had a big problem: too much water. This year, there's not enough of it.

It's a drastic difference, forcing barge operators to lighten their loads. It could also mean you pay more at the store.

To give you an idea, a manager at James Marine said full barges need at least 10 feet of water to safely maneuver. The Ohio River at Cairo staged at nine feet just a few days ago.

Friday night, river levels are slightly higher after some much needed rain. But barge operators are still very worried about getting stuck.

"To the untrained eye, it does look normal for the most part," said Brent Gaines with James Marine.

Gaines told us the river level is anything but normal.

"We're almost to 1988 proportions, which was one of the worst years ever," Gaines said.

The problem his industry faces is simple.

"The more product you load in a barge, it's going to sink down, draft lower and when you only have eight and a half foot of water, it makes it difficult," Gaines said. "Most of the operators, we're pulling back, we're not loading down as much. We're trying the best we can not to have groundings."

If you think this doesn't impact you, think again.

"It really kind of snowballs when you get into a situation like this," Gaines said.

It now takes more barges to haul the same amount, causing shipping costs to skyrocket.

Gaines and others who work out here are praying for rain.

"The forecast looks fairly bleak, so it's important we get some water soon," Gaines said.

Gaines said so far, no barges have gotten stuck or been damaged but that's another big concern. Low levels and debris at the bottom of the river can cause lots of damage to barges and barge equipment.

Gaines said the most common products shipped are coal, grain and other raw commodities.

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