Here for Mariners During This Low Water Crisis

The Rev. Mark Nestlehutt, President and Executive Director, The Seamen’s Church Institute

Last week, the National Weather Service noted the water level in Memphis at negative 10.75 feet—the lowest ever recorded at that mile marker. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers, from top to bottom, are currently experiencing unprecedented low water this year, significantly suppressing the capacity of the inland maritime transportation industry.

While many of us criss-cross these rivers and their tributaries by car, train, or airplane daily, we rarely realize how much of our nation’s agriculture, building materials, and other commodities are quietly passing us on barges via these vital waterways. A single barge alone holds as many as 15 rail hoppers or 50 truck trailers, and at full capacity most tow boats typically pull 15 to 30 barges. But, in low water like this, capacity is reduced dramatically. The supply-side and overall industry implications are obvious. The strain on river mariners and their operators might be less obvious during this crisis.

Dangerously low water means tows must push less, resulting in more boats pushing reduced tows to meet demand. This imparts an occupational and financial strain on mariners, as they are unable to work regular shifts and face the possibility of fewer trips, affecting their ability to earn a living. The on-river risks also increase as reduced water levels cause channels to narrow, meaning faster currents render vessels more difficult to manage. Boat and barge traffic also builds as they all try to navigate the same cramped waterways.

Unfortunately, river mariners will have to bear these stressors for the time being. Weather forecasts suggest that there is little relief forthcoming to alleviate this situation.

The industry leaders I have met have always held their employees in the highest regard–considering their mariners among their most important assets. They are doing their best under difficult circumstances. And all of us at SCI stand with them in supporting their critical workforce during these challenging times. As we have done since our founding, SCI’s Ministry on the River program will continue to make sure that wherever the river takes them, mariners will have chaplains—people they can depend on who listen, care, and advocate for them. As well, we too will pray for rain.

If you are aware of any way our Ministry on the River chaplains and chaplain associates can be of assistance, please let us know: [email protected] or call 800-708-1998.