Forgotten river plays key commercial role

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Billions of bushels of Minnesota farm products have started their journeys to world markets with a 14.7-mile ride down the Minnesota River. At that point the Minnesota joins the Mighty Mississippi, and barges continue 1500 miles, where their cargoes are loaded onto freighters and sent into the Gulf of Mexico and from there to all points.

The Upper Mississippi Watershed Association, a group representing both commercial and recreational interests on the Mississippi and its major tributaries in Minnesota and Iowa, organized a paddleboat tour on August 22 to help focus attention on the importance of the Minnesota River.

Since 1982, what is now CHS, Inc., has operated one of the four elevators located at the Port of Savage on the Minnesota River. Since that time 29,000 barges have departed from the CHS slip, carrying 1.6 billion bushels of corn, beans and increasingly distillers dried grains and solubles, according to Clint Gergen, a representative of CHS who took part in the river tour.

Gergen noted that farm product traffic on the river has slowed, but he hopes that strategic changes might reverse that trend, in particular an effort to develop capacity to deliver non-GMO products to markets like Japan. A key to this, and to access to all world markets, is the imminent conversion of the Panama canal to make it serviceable for the current class of ocean-going freighters. (Currently, such freighters must offload their cargo onto smaller ‘Panamax’ vessels, in order to use the canal, and then reload onto larger vessels on the other end of the canal).

The touring party included journalists, government officials, academics and citizen volunteers who are concerned about river issues. The tour was funded by MNDOT, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Upper Mississippi Watershed Association.

Minnesota Department of Transportation sent several representatives, to speak to the importance of the river as part of the intermodal approach—meaning roads, rail, air and water transportation must all work in concert in order to achieve the highest efficiency. One of the effects of intermodality is that the various forms of transportation compete for customers, keeping the cost lower for all users.

“We keep the railroads honest,” said Greg Genz, with Kaposia Marine Service, and a representative of Upper Mississippi Watershed Association. Genz and Gergen describe the capacity at Savage, which CHS and Cargill continue to maintain. The two companies can load 40 barges daily, though current use has fallen significantly below that mark.

“If the river shippers weren’t there, the farmers would be getting hit with a lot higher basis for transport. That’s because the capacity is still there, hasn’t gone away.

A group of soil and water scientists led by University of Minnesota Prof Satish Gupta, and Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center, both spoke to the question of sediment loading in the river. Gupta’s current research focuses on the role of groundwater seepage in the undermining of riverbank soil structure along the Minnesota. This seepage leads to slumping of riverbanks and huge volumes of clayey soil enter the river in this way and become suspended sediment. The tour took a run upriver to a bluff in Eden Prairie where the location of several high value homes has become increasingly precarious, due to this seepage-slumping effect.

The effect of the 2012 drought was very evident as the tour made its way both up and down the river. Along the entire length, it was clear that the river is well below its high water mark. Because of the reduced flow, the normally cloudy brown look of the river has become a light green—reflecting increased algae production due to how stagnant the water is.

One university scientist remarked that the high sediment load in the Minnesota River is a function of the relative youth of the river—it was only formed about 14,000 years ago, after the retreat of the most recent glacier sheet to cover Minnesota. The slumping of streambanks is the river’s natural process of achieving dynamic equilibrium. Left to its own devices, the river would eventually become much wider and shallower and the sediment load would drop dramatically. The scientist pointed out that riverside private property and other public uses make it undesirable to leave the river to its natural process. The science of managing streambanks, however, is also young.

When someone asked if anyone had considered riprapping the whole length of the Minnesota River—riprapping being the method of controlling erosion by putting a layer of rocks over that streambank—the scientist noted that the US Army Corps of Engineers studied a potential project to riprap 1,000 yards of the river near Rice Lake, and found that the cost for that one segment would be $1 million dollars.


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