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Drought-delayed boat traffic starts moving on the Mississippi

Barge traffic resumed along an 11-mile stretch of the drought-ravaged Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss., but dozens of vessels waited their turn Thursday to pass in the shrunken waterway — creating a costly situation for barge owners that could be passed on to consumers.

The Mississippi, the country's primary highway for barge traffic, has dropped as much as 14 feet during the drought, which also has withered crops in the Midwest and triggered wildfires in the West, according to a Reuters report.

The resulting changes in water currents and conditions have made navigation especially tricky and sometimes hazardous. At least 66 Mississippi River vessels have run aground this year between Natchez, Miss., and Caruthersville, Mo., Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Gomez told the news service.

The latest incident occurred around dawn on Wednesday, just hours after the Coast Guard opened the channel near Greenville. Seventeen of the roughly 100 ships that had been stuck since Monday made it through before one became lodged in the sand, forcing authorities to close the channel again for roughly 12 hours.

As of Thursday morning, about 50 boats were still backed up in the channel, waiting for their turn to pass.

Barge operators typically haul about $180 billion in goods annually and the Mississippi is their main artery. About 566 million tons of freight travel up and down the inland waterway each year, according to the American Waterways Operators, a national trade association representing tugboats, towboats and barges.

The drought's effect on the river has caused logistical and financial woes for the barge industry. Barge operators are losing an estimated $10,000 a day for every one of their boats that sits idle near Greenville. With 97 vessels idle on Monday and Tuesday and 105 idle on Wednesday, according to Gomez, that's nearly $3 million in lost revenue in three days.

The costs probably will be passed to consumers, Dave Miller, research and commodity service director for the Iowa Farm Bureau, told the (Detroit) Free Press.

"It could be a year that favors railroads over barges," Miller told the newspaper. "Barges are cheaper than rail, but we do have the excess capacity in the railroads."

Click here for the Reuters report and click here for the Free Press report.

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