Time runs slow on Ole Man River these days but the money's running out fast, as the 50 towboats in position to nudge 750 barges up the Mississippi sit stranded in record-low water levels caused by drought.

Officials fear that up to 1,500 barges could become stranded by the weekend, equaling "a traffic jam of semi-trucks bumper to bumper from New Orleans to Philadelphia (a.)," Michael Logue, spokesman for the Vicksburg District of the Army Corps of Engineers."Nobody knows for a fact how long we will be here," said James Burkett, a pilot with the towboat Charles F. Detmar, Jr., stuck near this Mississippi Delta town. "Some of the boats have been here for three days - at least three days."

While tugboat owners are losing an estimated $10,000 a day in expenses, their crews are spending the time painting, performing light maintenance and even fishing.

"There's plenty of work, there's always something to do," said Steve Southern, a first mate on a towboat pushing 30 barges north.

The continuing drought has brought the Mississippi to its lowest levels for this time of year since Mark Twain chronicled life on the Big Muddy and officials began chronicling river levels in 1872.

The low water has forced barges to operate only during daylight and to lighten their loads, said Jeffrey Smith, vice president of the American Waterways Operators in Arlington, Va.