By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - Barge traffic on a flooded stretch of the Mississippi River remained at a standstill on Tuesday, but relatively few vessels stood waiting at the channel's system of locks as shippers had received ample warning of the rising water.
The Port of St. Louis and eight locks on the major shipping artery from northern Iowa to St. Louis have been closed by the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers following record rains around the U.S. Midwest.
It was the third major hindrance to river shipping this year after record flooding on the Illinois River in April and the threat of a low-water closure of the Mississippi in January, events that further solidified communication between the industry and government officials that manage the river system.
"We have a very close working relationship with the river industry, so when we have an anticipated river closure, they know well before we close. It doesn't help if they're parked on the river," Army Corps spokesman Michael Petersen said.
The closures were expected to keep commercial navigation shuttered until at least the weekend or early next week, but shipping traffic will likely accelerate ahead of the anticipated reopening.
"Right now, you're probably not seeing a long queue because a lot of folks saw the flood coming. The lock queues will spike as soon as it looks like we're going to reopen because everybody's going to want to get through," Petersen said.
Two upbound vessels towing a total of 30 barges were delayed at a railroad drawbridge in Hannibal, Missouri, a Coast Guard spokesman said. Another two vessels hauling a total of 14 barges were also delayed by the lock closures.
Eight locks between Lock 17 at New Boston, Illinois, and Lock 27 in Granite City, Illinois, were closed and a ninth, Lock 16 at Muscatine, Iowa, was forecast to shut later on Tuesday.
Locks on the Illinois River remain open, but since the waterway flows into the Mississippi north of St. Louis and above the southernmost lock closure, barges are unable to navigate to the Gulf Coast.
The latest river forecasts from the National Weather Service suggest Lock 16 could reopen on Saturday and the locks further downriver could reopen over following days as the river's crest moves southward toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The Coast Guard officially closed the busy port of St. Louis on Monday from mile markers 179 to 184 due to high water and warned mariners about increased debris in the river.
Barge shippers will be allowed to tend to vessels parked along the shoreline and remove debris around barges that could increase the risk of vessels breaking free, but all other traffic is restricted.
Some 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports is transported via the Mississippi River and its tributaries from farm areas in the Midwest to export terminals at the Gulf Coast. Shippers also rely on the inland waterway system to transport numerous other commodities, including fertilizer, coal, crude oil and steel.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Dale Hudson)