ST. PAUL (AP) -- Despite the mild winter, the season's first barges are not expected make their way up the Mississippi River to St. Paul until late next week.
That would be nearly seven weeks ahead of the start of last year's flood-shortened season, which finally started May 11.
But it would be nearly three weeks later than the record March 4 openings in 1984, 1996 and 2000.
State transportation experts said Monday they expect barge shipments of corn, soybeans, cement and other commodities to return to normal levels in Minnesota, after floods made last year's season the shortest on record.
But this winter's skimpy snowfalls probably will depress shipments of road salt because inventories remain relatively high, they said.
As of Monday, no upstream barge tows had gone beyond Davenport, Iowa, said Dennis Erickson, chief of operations for the St. Paul district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
A few 50-degree days would allow vessels to make it through the locks at Guttenberg, Iowa, the southernmost in the St. Paul district, he said.
Farther north, the biggest obstacle remains ice in the stretch of the Mississippi that passes through Lake Pepin.
Ice there thickened during last week's cold spell, Erickson said.
Dick Lambert, director of ports and waterways for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said barge shipments on Minnesota rivers dropped to about 14.2 million tons last year from 17.3 million tons in 2000.
Most of the drop was in grain shipments, from 10.2 million tons to 7.3 million tons.
But because inventories of most commodities have been drawn down, "I'm feeling a little more optimistic" this year, he said.
Mark Sackmaster, senior corn merchandiser for CHS Cooperatives, said smaller harvests and economic troubles in other exporting countries could create greater opportunities for Minnesota farmers and grain dealers.
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