ST. PAUL (AP) -- A towboat named Phyllis has pushed the last barges of 2001 downstream from St. Paul, ending the upper Mississippi River's shortest-ever shipping season.
Prolonged spring flooding on the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers delayed the season's start until May 11, the latest on record, said the Army Corps of Engineers. And because of varying schedules by barge companies, the season began even later for some customers, such as the Peavey Co., a major grain handler with a terminal south of downtown St. Paul.
But this fall's mild weather and free-flowing river did not tempt shippers to make up tonnage by pushing their luck into December. That's partly because demand was so low.
Lee J. Nelson of Upper River Services said the "topsy-turvy world markets" mean weak demand for Upper Midwest corn and soybeans, which typically are among the last commodities shipped downstream this time of year. Some late-season traffic comes from grain elevators moving out older grain to make room for newly harvested crops.
Dick Lambert, director of ports and waterways for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said shipments of grain on the river through October were down about 25 percent from a year ago. That's partly because of the shorter season and because Japanese orders for Midwest grain faltered, he said.
Among the last 12 barges heading downstream last Thursday, including the Phyllis, eight held grain and petroleum products. The other four were empty.
Another issue is better business downstream.
Rick Krause, Peavey's operations manager at the Red Rock terminal south of downtown St. Paul, said freight prices are "a lot better down south" this time of year. Typically, barge companies book commitments farther south by the calendar rather than by seasonal weather variations.
On top of that, said the corps' Dennis Erickson, chief of operations for the St. Paul district, barge company executives still remember 1985, when they waited too long before a sudden onslaught of cold weather froze their barges in the river all winter.
Erickson said the water temperature dropped from 47 degrees a week ago Sunday to the upper 30s last Thursday at Lock 2 in Hastings -- the closest downstream lock to St. Paul. The mid-30s is "a critical area," he said, because a "super chill" of zero or below could create ice in a hurry.
If the barges that moved south through Lock 2 Thursday are indeed the last ones as officials expect, the season will end at 202 days. The previous shortest season was 234 days in 1978, Erickson said.
Last year, the season opened March 4, tying the record for earliest start. But this year's heavy snow and rain fed spring floods that kept barges downriver.
Lambert has not yet compiled final volume figures, but they're likely to be sharply lower than last year, when 17.3 million tons of goods moved through 45 terminals on Minnesota rivers.
Sometimes barge traffic continues around the Twin Cities area even after the downstream barges head south. Local barges ferry gravel, sand and other materials to upriver terminals. But this year that commerce will be limited by Monday's scheduled closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock in downtown Minneapolis.
Lockmaster Steve Lenhart said the shutdown, the first since 1978, will continue until March 23. Workers will repair concrete, replace timber bumpers on lock gates and inspect and repair bushings, pins and seals on the gates and related equipment. The extent of the work won't be known until the lock is drained and silt removed from concrete on the bottom.
He said the repairs are unrelated to spring flooding, when the lock was opened to let the river rush through and relieve pressure on the gates.
But because all the work is outdoors, he said he won't mind if the season's mild temperatures stick around awhile.
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