Magazine article EconSouth

The Lower Mississippi River: The Flow of Trade: One of the World's Most Extensive Waterways, the Mississippi River Occupies a Near-Mythical Role in the National Psyche. the River Also Plays a Very Real-And Crucial-Role in U.S. Commerce

Magazine article EconSouth

The Lower Mississippi River: The Flow of Trade: One of the World's Most Extensive Waterways, the Mississippi River Occupies a Near-Mythical Role in the National Psyche. the River Also Plays a Very Real-And Crucial-Role in U.S. Commerce

Article excerpt

Few if any natural features of the United States have the far-reaching impact of the Mississippi River. With a basin covering more than a million square miles--including all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces--the Mississippi River drains 41 percent of the continental United States. The river's drainage basin is the world's third largest, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon and Congo rivers.

The Mississippi plays a central role not only in the U.S. ecosystem but also as a commercial shipping hub. The five ports on the lower Mississippi combine to form the nation's largest port complex, in terms of tonnage. The largest of the five, the Port of South Louisiana, ranked first in the nation (with 225 million short tons) in total (domestic and foreign) trade in 2006. (A short ton is 2,240 pounds.) Its companion ports also ranked high: The Port of New Orleans was eighth (77 million short tons), the Port of Baton Rouge 12th (56.3 million short tons), and the Port of Plaquemines 13th (55.9 million short tons). The St. Bernard Port handled nearly four million short tons in 2006.

Is the mighty Mississippi underused?

The unquestionably massive reach of the Mississippi River as a domestic transportation infrastructure impresses many, but after centuries of use, some still consider it underutilized.

The Mississippi River links the heartland of the United States to the rest of the world through its ports. "From our standpoint, we believe the inland waterway system--not just the Mississippi River, but the 14,000 miles of navigable waterway connected to the Mississippi River--are probably the nation's most underutilized natural resource, especially from a transportation perspective," said Robert Landry, director of marketing for the Port Authority of New Orleans.

Landry sees the potential for growth. "As money gets very tight for building highways and bridges, [besides dredging] you don't really have to do anything to the navigable waterway system in the United States," he said. "We can handle big ships. We can handle a lot of barges. I think you're going to see more and more companies look at inland waterway options as a means to moving their cargo. And that bodes very well for the lower Mississippi River and our future."

Statistics from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) highlight the advantages of shipping on inland waterways. According to MARAD, domestic waterborne shipping for all waterways in the United States moves 14 percent of the national cargo tonnage for less than 2 percent of the freight bill. It also provides an estimated 124,000 direct jobs, generates $10 billion in annual freight revenue, and provides $300 million and $55 million in federal and state tax revenue, respectively.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But even Jim Murphy, the director of MARAD's East Gulf Lower Mississippi Gateway Office, recognizes some of the limitations for inland waterway shipping.

"If you're shipping steel from New Orleans to Pittsburgh, a barge on the Mississippi is a good option," Murphy said. "If you're shipping something from Fort Pope, La., to Fort Carson, Colo., it doesn't make as much sense."

How much can Old Man River carry?

From 1997 through 2006, total tonnage on the Mississippi River has exceeded 300 million tons annually, with the exception of the Hurricane Katrina-affected 2005, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). During that 10-year period, food and farm products made up the largest commodity heading downriver (65 million tons in 2006), and petroleum and petroleum products were the largest category heading upriver (42 million tons in 2006), according to USACE (see the table on page 16).

How close those numbers are to reaching the river system's capacity, no one is sure. "One of the things we've not done a good job of is measuring how much capacity our inland waterway system has," Murphy said. …

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