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Fickle as it may be, river transport remains among most efficient

The drought's impact on river levels is having its own ripple effect on the supply chain.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Early last month, Viking River Cruises blamed low river levels for canceling a couple of its trips, but the depth of the Mississippi has bigger implications on more than just luxury cruises.

"In the world of supply chain, there are things that are non-supply chain events that completely gum up the supply chain," Pawan Joshi said. 

Joshi is the executive vice president for products and strategy at e2open. e2open is a company in charge of supply chain software. 

Joshi said water levels are definitely one of those "external" non-supply chain issues.

"Any time it goes up or down it affects not just loading, unloading at the terminals," he said. "It also affects how much can be carried through — how many of these boats can cross each other as they are moving up and down."

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised to dig deeper in some parts of the river identified as choke points, Joshi said that's not a fix-all.

"You can continue to dig deeper and deeper. If the water is only so much, it doesn't really help," he said.

So, why do so many companies rely on something that's subject to the whims of Mother Nature?

"Rivers are probably one of the most efficient modes of transportation inland," Joshi said. "About a gallon load of fuel carries a ton of grain for about 500 miles if it's going on a barge. You just compare that same 1 ton of grain moving on a truck, [which] will only go 60 miles."

Volume-wise, too, Joshi said a single barge can carry up to 50 to 60 truck trailers worth of bulk items. 

"If you think about it in terms of rail cars, it's about a 15-railcar load on a single barge," Joshi said. "If you tie that back to a tugboat, carrying anywhere from 15 to 30 barges — like a single tug that is pushing these barges — it is carrying the weight of two trains, two locomotives; entire 100 railcars worth of stuff."

Plus, Joshi said opting for the roads rather than the river would only exacerbate the climate, which wouldn't help extreme weather cases like this drought.

"It's in some ways climate change," he said. "Some of it is cyclical in nature, but some of it is the amount of carbon you're putting up into the atmosphere. If you start moving from a river-based system to a road-based system, you're not only needing more fuel, you're using more fuel for the same amount of distance and pumping more carbon back into the atmosphere."

One thing companies could do in the meantime?

"The concept of matchmaking, the concept of reducing empty miles," Joshi suggested. "Making sure when you're picking up grain, you're driving back, you're bringing stuff back, not coming back empty — that's effective utilization that needs to happen. "

Joshi said systemic changes would also be helpful as these extreme weather events are inevitable. He said having companies talk to each other, and work together to prioritize more perishable items over items that could afford to sit idle a bit longer, may be helpful. 

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