By Ray Scherer, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.
Waterborne commerce is once again slowly chugging its way along the Missouri River past St. Joseph and the region.
In April, a small fleet of commercial barges -- carrying agricultural fertilizer for Omaha-based Gavilon -- moved toward southeast Nebraska and an eventual destination of Nebraska City. The cargo was making its way northward from the Kansas City area.
Officials view the return of Missouri River shipping as renewal of a transportation mode subject to floods and drought, along with navigation choices from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and business preferences for highways and rail.
Yet Brad Lau, executive director of the St. Joseph Regional Port Authority, said commercial traffic has never actually disappeared from the river. Agri Services of Brunswick, for example, has consistently been operating tows on the river -- hauling grain out of White Cloud, Kan., for all of last season.
"Traffic on the Missouri River is going to steadily increase," Mr. Lau said. "With each tow that is operated, companies and ag-related businesses are going to become more confident in the reliability of barge traffic."
Lucy Fletcher, who directs business development for the firm, put some perspective on the worthiness of barges to ferry goods.
"Many last year predicted that moving the massive harvest of 2014 through our current transportation system would be like hooking a garden hose to a fire hydrant," Ms. Fletcher said. "Many (grain) elevators in the Midwest had a hard time getting railcars when they were needed, and there appears to be a nationwide truck shortage."
She said Agri Services, Gavilon, and MFA will continue exporting last year's crops this season to make room for grain in the fall harvest.
"This was the first time in 10 years that MFA moved grain on the Missouri River," Ms. Fletcher said. "Our nation's roads and rails are maxed out and we still have an abundance of capacity on our inland waterways."
On its website, Inland Rivers, Ports &Terminals Inc. said the barge and towing industry has a reputation for strong environmental stewardship and safety -- with water transport having the fewest number of accidents, fatalities and injuries compared to truck or rail.