- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Icy conditions have forced an early end to shipping on the Upper Mississippi River.

The shipping season officially closed Thursday with the towboat Mary K. Cavarra and its load of four barges heading south through Lock & Dam No. 2 at Hastings, Minnesota.

It’s the earliest closing in 45 years, the Star Tribune (https://strib.mn/1yIQ8un ) reported. The season began last spring with the second-latest opening and came to a 26-day halt in midsummer so crews could clear flood-borne silt from the navigation channel.

“It’s been a real challenging year for us,” said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, which represents about 550 grain elevators and feed mills across the state.

The river is the cheapest way of moving crops, Zelenka said. But the river’s early closure means finding alternative ways to get those crops to New Orleans and foreign export markets.

For shippers, it’s been a full seven months of trying to play catch-up, and now it’s over too soon, said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services Inc. in St. Paul, which moves barges between river terminals. Besides grain, the river is a key conduit for commodities such as cement, road salt and fertilizer.

“With the year we’ve had, everyone was hoping for as much time as possible,” Nelson said.

Ice measured at nearly 3 feet thick on Lake Pepin delayed the start of the season until April 16. That was followed by late floods that deposited millions of tons of silt around Wabasha and Winona, halting river traffic until the silt could be dredged.

Bryan Peterson, navigation manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said ice is now at a thickness not usually seen until December, and the towboats are working their way through, but it’s a slow process. A coming thaw could bring relief.

“Mother Nature is dictating everything,” Peterson said.

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Information from: Star Tribune, https://www.startribune.com

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