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Mississippi River near historic lows, grain exports at risk

A key stretch of the lower Mississippi River dropped this week to within inches of its lowest-ever level and is expected to remain near historic lows just as the busiest U.S. grain export season gets underway, according to the National Weather Service.

Low water has slowed hauling of export-bound corn and soybean barges over recent weeks as shippers lightened loads to prevent vessels from running aground and reduced the number of barges they haul at one time to navigate a narrower shipping channel.

The water woes come at the worst possible time for U.S. farmers as newly harvested corn and soybeans are beginning to flood the market and as stiff market competition from Brazil has already eroded once-dominant U.S. exports.

Portions of the river have been closed 22 times since Sept. 1 for dredging or to remove barges that have run aground, and at least 36 groundings have been reported, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Mississippi River dropped to a reading of -10.62 feet on the Memphis, Tennessee,gauge on Thursday, just above its all-time low of -10.81 feet on October 21 last year, according to NWS data.

The river is expected to remain below the -10 foot mark into at least mid-October, according to the latest forecast, creating a choke point between heavy production areas in the Midwest and Gulf Coast terminals, where around 60% of U.S. grain exports exit the country.

“October’s not normally a robust precipitation month, and if we’re here already … it’s a real cause for concern,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

Low water has also driven freight costs to the highest levels since last year’s historic river woes and made U.S. grain much less competitive in the global marketplace.
Source: Reuters (Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; editing by Timothy Gardner)

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