Aboard the Evey-T on the Mississippi River — The Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers meet in St. Louis. It's a popular port crammed with barges. Most take their loads down the Mississippi. While each year a smaller number of barges navigate along the Missouri. At one time planners thought both rivers would become commercial arteries for the nation. But as the decades drag on the Mississippi has become busier. Now it carries 30 times as much freight as the Missouri. Cecil Jackson has manned the Evey-T for close to three decades. He's moved from deck hand, to first mate, to captain. Now he pilots massive barges along the upper Mississippi River. Jackson sits in his faded leather captain's chair and draws on a cigarette. He looks out towards the river.
"These are loads we be picking up at Winona and taking them to St. Louis," he explains pointing to the river. "Bigger boats will come up from the Lower Mississippi and they'll pick up these 15 and take down 30."
Those boats on the lower Mississippi will hook up 30 containers at a time and take them downstream.
Here on the upper river, red and gray barges sit low in the water. They're filled with corn and soybeans. Each weighs about 1400 tons. Together, they stretch a quarter of a mile in front of the Evey-T.
The sunburned members of Jackson's crew lift huge coiled ropes. Its part of a time consuming effort to secure all of the containers together before the journey down river can begin.
"We're just getting her ready to go cause when we leave here we won't have no stop till St. Louis," says Jackson.
Hours later Jackson positions his white towboat behind the long fleet of barges. Its time to move.
He speaks into a telephone from the captain's chair. "Evey-T leaving the port of Winona southbound - head towards the Winona highway bridge. Evey-T southbound," Jackson says.
By now it's late at night and progress is slow and Jackson navigates in the dark. Red and green reflective buoys guide him on the river while a special radar monitors flank the steering column, showing outlines of islands and open river. The barge travels about five miles an hour downstream.
Along the way the Evey-T uses a fraction of the fuel it would take to ship the grain by truck or rail. In fact this load is the equivalent of 870 large semi trucks or 100 rail cars. Barge tows on the Mississippi are one of the most efficient ways to transport grain.
Phillip Baumel is a professor at Iowa State University. He's spent much of his career focused on transportation issues and agriculture. He's listened to decades of debate over whether the Mississippi should be maintained as a navigation corridor. Some say the locks and dams that allow for barge traffic have hurt the river's ecology. But he counters, from a financial perspective, it's the cheapest way.
"Eastern Iowa, western Illinois, eastern Missouri and indeed Minnesota are highly dependent on the barge traffic on the Mississippi," says Baumel. "I don't know anyone who's talking seriously about eliminating barge traffic on the Mississippi River. I expect it to continue indefinitely."
But that's not the case with the Missouri River. Barge traffic on the Big Muddy has been in decline for decades. While the Mississippi represents roughly half of all corn and soybean exports in the U.S., the Missouri's responsible for less than one percent.
The Mississippi is a much larger river. But planners back in the 1800s saw plenty of similarities. They hoped the rivers would be equally productive corridors for commercial navigation.
In particular the Missouri was considered ideal to haul wheat. Phillip Baumel says trouble struck when local farmers stopped producing the grain.
"The irony of all of this is while farmers have replaced corn and soybeans, corn and soybean traffic on the river has also been declining. So the Missouri river failed to replace those huge quantities of wheat with corn and soybeans," he explains.
Baumel says many reasons are to blame. To start, there are two huge corn and soybean processing plants in Nebraska and Iowa. That means a lot of grain doesn't have to travel down river. And some Midwest grain is purchased locally for animal feed. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing barge operators on the Missouri River is the railroad. It has become cheaper to haul grain by rail car than by barge.
The Missouri doesn't have a lock system like the Mississippi does. So the Missouri River is narrow and fast-moving. As a result Baumel says it takes a lot more fuel to navigate the Missouri. And that translates into higher prices - as much as 60 percent higher than the Mississippi.
"So the Missouri River barge industry has great difficulty competing with the railroad industry and with other markets along the Missouri River," says Baumel.
That's made the navigation system on the Missouri particularly controversial. Water levels in Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas fluctuate in order maintain the nine foot navigation system downstream.
Each year the federal government spends $7 million maintaining that system. Critics say that's poor use of taxpayer funds. Especially since recreation upstream is a bigger moneymaker. Anglers and boaters generate $85 million each year, while commercial navigation barely breaks even.
But barge operators say there are clear benefits to maintaining commercial navigation on the Missouri.
Don Huffman works for a company that has barges on major waterways around the country including the Missouri. Huffman says it's important for farmers to have transportation options. A western drought has made for lower water levels on the Missouri. Huffman says barge operators are looking to the Army Corps of Engineers to assure their future.
"Like any business we need consistency. We need to know when we're going to have water. We need to know ahead of time so we can make plans and contracts," says Huffman. "Shippers have products to ship and if navigation isn't there they've got to find other ways to ship their goods."
But its not just barge operators on the Missouri who are feeling the pinch. The industry overall is experiencing a tough time. The nation's largest publicly traded barge company declared bankruptcy last year. Industry experts say other barge companies are lucky to break even. Part of that has to do with shrinking international demand for U.S. grain. That's forced grain prices down and sent fewer barges down to New Orleans. Iowa State's Phillip Baumel says these are challenging times for the barge industry.
"I would guess they're earnings are either low to non-existent and that they're loosing a fair amount of money with this downward trend in exports particularly this year. Barge traffic is down 10 or 15 percent from last year," says Baumel.
Barge tow captain Cecil Jackson concedes this year is slow on the Mississippi.
"Not a lot of boats running. Normally you've got quite a bit of delay coming up from St. Louis. Anymore it's just non-stop," says Jackson.
To a barge captain, non-stop means there's no other traffic on the river. He's got a clear channel. It might not be good for business but it makes a captain's jobs easier. In the inky darkness, Cecil Jackson pulls out a cigarette and pours another cup of coffee as the Evey-T moves down river.