The Missouri River is slowly resuming its role as a transportation corridor for commodities such as grain, scrap metal and fertilizer, but proponents of the barge industry acknowledge they’re still swimming upstream against a perception that the river is not reliable enough to be profitable.
A combination of drought, economic recession, low commodity prices and politic infighting led many public ports on the river to close in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As prices stabilized and droughts eased, attention turned to reopening some public ports, with the Woodswether terminal port in Kansas City last August being the first since 2007. About an hour north, the St. Joseph Regional Port Authority is improving its infrastructure and plans to attract barge traffic within the year. Other county or regional port authorities will receive funding from the state of Missouri to establish or improve terminals currently not in use.
“The idea that the Missouri River is not navigable is simply just incorrect,” said Michael Collins, president and CEO of Port KC. “The negative perception is changing but we still have a lot of work to do.”
With no lock and dam system to control the river’s free-flowing water, keeping open the 9-foot-deep, 300-foot-wide navigation channel from Sioux City to St. Louis can be challenging for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during drought or flooding, though Collins notes the flood of 1993 caused the only complete shutdown of barge traffic on the river in the last 36 years.
While Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa currently have no public ports on the Missouri River, the advantages of barge shipping — including job creation and private investment — got the Missouri legislature’s attention. The state has increased allocations for capital improvements at ports from $3 million in fiscal year 2014 to $12.4 million for fiscal year 2017.
Read more: Columbia Missourian