As farmers watched their fields dry up last summer, some may not have realized that another critical resource was also in peril — the Mississippi River.

It wasn’t until after harvest, when the United States exports the most soybeans, that the agriculture industry took notice that its battle with drought wasn’t over.

Lower river levels increased the cost of moving goods, as barges had to lighten their loads to pass through shallower water.

“The drought really highlighted some concerns that are common among those of us who use the rivers to move our products,” explains Keith Tapp, Kentucky soybean farmer and soy checkoff farmer-leader. “These rivers matter to farmers’ profitability, and it’s important to do everything we can to keep the traffic on them operating smoothly and efficiently.”

Historically, the rails, roads and rivers in the United States have provided U.S. agriculture with a competitive edge. This web of options for moving products from areas of surplus to areas of deficit has been reliable, efficient and affordable. But these pieces are aging and in desperate need of repair and upgrades to meet today’s standards of larger shipments and larger vessels.

Sound the alarm on locks and dams

The inland-waterway system grabbed attention this winter as the lack of precipitation took its toll on shipping. The situation on the Mississippi showed the importance of the country’s 25,320 miles of inland waterways to the U.S. economy.

But the problems along the U.S. waterways go beyond the recent drought. Many of the locks and dams that harness the rivers were built in the 1930s and are well beyond a usable life span of such structures. The age of the locks and dams shows in the increasing hours of unplanned closures for maintenance.

Unplanned closures on the Ohio River have tripled since 2000. These closures don’t just waste time, but they can get expensive, too. This past fall, Lock 27 on the Mississippi River closed for five days for emergency repairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that a closure such as this could cost $2.8 million per day.

A major shutdown or disruption in river transport would cause a lot of headaches for companies that use these bodies of water to move commodities, such as soybeans, from the Midwest to export position in New Orleans. But it’s going to be the farmers and the buyers who pay the price.

“The real problem is anytime you go away from the most efficient and effective way of doing something to the next-best way, you typically encounter a higher cost,” says Rick Calhoun of Cargo Carriers, a business of Cargill, Inc.