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Killing Time While Record Low Water Halts Barge Traffic

June 24, 1988

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ The mighty Mississippi, drained to an all-time low, looks like an emptying bathtub. Receding waters have exposed cracked river banks and beach-like expanses where barges sit mired, their crews restlessly hoping for an unlikely rain.

″We’re stuck on this thing,″ said Johnny Bryson, 35, pilot of one of 56 towboats parked Thursday along a 40-mile stretch of idle river around Memphis. ″That’s all everybody talks about - the river, the low water, no rain.″

The crews, stalled by the worst drought in half a century, are swabbing decks, changing engine oil and finding other ways to kill time until the river is navigable again.

A few miles north of here, a dredge worked around the clock to deepen a channel that was 6 inches shallower than the 9-foot depth guaranteed by the Army Corps of Engineers. A 35-foot scoop that looks like a dustpan scrapes a sand shoal at a rate that could deepen a football field by 9 feet a day.

The Coast Guard hoped to have the channel open this afternoon, freeing the 22 southbound tows and 34 northbound boats that had lined up by 7 p.m. Thursday. The river was shut to commercial traffic Tuesday night.

Normally, 30 to 50 towboats moving barges of wheat, corn, coal, petroleum, steel, bauxite, chemicals, auto parts, cement and other bulk goods churn past Memphis each day.

The cargo floats on a natural interstate highway that is a lifeline to the nation. It would take 27,000 trucks to haul the tonnage pushed past Memphis in a day.

These days, however, the Mississippi is at its lowest level since records were first kept in 1872. Receding waters have left beach-like expanses of sand bars and stone dykes used to control channel flow, and river banks baked by the relentless sun show deep, dry cracks.

The only things moving on the brown waters Thursday were pleasure craft and fishing boats.

The Charlotte and its five metal barges, which shimmered with griddle-like heat waves in broiling 100-degree heat, was bound for St. Louis from Beaumont, Texas. The river traffic jam could extend add a week to the 14-day trip.

″It’s OK to break for a day or so,″ said engineer Darrell Eriest, 32, of Harned, Ky. ″Then everybody gets anxious.

″There’s an old saying out here that a towboat never stops, but it’s always stopping. We’re used to hurrying up and then waiting. It’s part of the game,″ Eriest said.

Eriest spent the day changing oil on the main engines, greasing the rudders and cleaning engine filters.

″When the boat shuts down, that’s when my work starts,″ he said.

One problem for boats arriving at the bottleneck was finding a spot to tie off. The water has dropped so low that sturdy trees are more than 1,000 feet from the water.

Hard-muscled rivermen, most with tanned and leathery skin, are used to seeing the Big Muddy blocked from time to time by accidents, barges running aground or ice packs. But the worst drought in 50 years has brought record low water, and the dry months of July and August are still to come.

″What’s got everybody shook up is it’s happening early in the year before the dry months. There’s no end in sight,″ said D.L. Carroll, 58, captain of the Arnold Sobel, which is carrying fertlizer.

Carroll used the dead time to have an abcessed tooth pulled in Memphis. He also radioed his home office in St. Louis, jokingly asking them to send rain gear.

″We’d all rather be under way. Time passes better when the engines are running,″ Carroll said. ″But there are still things to be done.″

Depending on which company they work for, river crews work 30 days, then get 15 or 30 days off. If the boat shuts down, they still get paid from $57 to $200 a day, depending on whether they are a deckhand or a captain.

″In a way, it’s easy money. There really isn’t that much to do,″ said Stuart Mill, 27, an assistant engineer from Daytona Beach, Fla.

Modern towboats bear little resemblance to the steam-driven paddlewheelers of Mark Twain’s time, when Memphis was built on a bluff to accommodate the cotton and riverboat trade.

The Arnold Sobel is like a floating motel, complete with air conditioners, private rooms and a laundry. On board for a crew of nine are five television sets and one videocasette recorder, the better to pass the time on idle days. The carpeted guest room has a private lounge and brass beds.

The boat is pushing 23 barges from New Orleans to Hartford, Ill., a trip that usually takes 10 days. Thursday was the ninth day of the journey and only its halfway point.

″Ain’t no use being in a hurry,″ said Robert Patterson, 48, a mate from Arlington, Ky. ″If it don’t rain, there ain’t going to be no grain to ship anyhow.″