Until a month ago, Deb McDaniel wasn’t sure she’d have helium to fill the big character balloons that are the hallmark of the annual Festival of Trees Holiday Parade in downtown Davenport.

A nationwide shortage of the inert gas that began more than a year ago had gotten worse. Over the summer, for example, florists and other businesses supplying helium-filled party balloons periodically had to turn people away. Sorry, no helium.

McDaniel, the festival director for Quad-City Arts, began talking with her balloon supplier about alternatives. If worse came to worst, they could fill the balloons with air and set them on flatbed trailers.

Tony McKay of StarBound Entertainment, the New Castle, Pa.-based company that provides the balloons, said she “started seeing (the shortage) three years ago — there were rumblings — but never, ever have I seen anything quite like this year.”

As it turned out, the festival’s helium supplier, S.J. Smith Co., Davenport, came through with a supply, although it will cost substantially more than the festival paid last year, McDaniel said. To reduce costs, organizers will fill only some of big balloons’ chambers with helium and the rest with regular air. The balloons won’t be quite as lofty, but the difference likely won’t be noticed, she said.

Meanwhile, the helium shortage and price spikes continue. Florists deal with the situation every day.

Ruth Gissel, the floral manager at the Hy-Vee Food Store on Devils Glen Road in Bettendorf, said her store made it through the 2011 graduation season before the supply tightened up, but it’s been hit and miss since then.

She’s had to search for suppliers, settle for small “party” tanks rather than the big cylinder tanks she got in the past and she’s had to pay more. Occasionally there’s been a day or two when the store has run out and had to turn customers away.

The story has been the same at other Hy-Vee stores, said Ruth Comer, the assistant vice president for media relations. Each store is responsible for finding its own supply, she added.

An alternative to helium is to fill balloons with regular air and put them on a stick to keep them aloft. But that is more labor-intensive, “doesn’t look as nice and is not what people want,” Gissel said.

More to the story

The use of helium goes far beyond parade and party balloons.

Helium is an element that is obtained as a byproduct of natural gas mining, and because it has extreme melting and boiling points, it has become crucial in many fields. That includes health care, defense, high-tech industry operations, welding and scientific research.

“Helium is absolutely essential to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) production,” Tom Rauch, the global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare, one of the largest manufacturers of MRI systems, told Popular Mechanics magazine in June. “Helium is currently the only element on Earth that can effectively keep the magnet … cold (enough) and consequently allow for the high field-strength, stable and uniform magnetic fields that make modern MRI systems possible.”

Steve Thomas, the purchasing manager for Genesis Health System in Davenport, said the health system’s main use for medical-grade helium is mixing it with argon for use in cardiac catheterization procedures in the operating room.

“We haven’t experienced any back orders or delays in getting the helium we need because health care is considered to be a priority for helium,” Thomas said. “We have a contracted price, so our pricing has not been affected.”

The supply/demand/cost story continues, though.

Tim Evans of S.J. Smith, the Festival of Trees supplier, said there are two main helium sources in the U.S.: One is the government-owned Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, and the other is an ExxonMobil facility.

The helium reserve pipeline was shut down for two months and the Exxon pipeline for four months, he said. In addition, Exxon did not produce as much helium because natural gas mining was down because of the recession and the warm winter of 2011-12.

Smith said his costs went up 40 percent to 70 percent throughout this year, on top of a similar increase last year.

In the long-term, there is concern over the future of the Federal Helium Reserve, which was established in the 1920s because helium was deemed strategically important.

The reserve is being sold off and could be shut down as early as next summer unless Congress passes legislation to exempt the stockpile from the “sunset” provision of a 1996 law that requires all of the government’s helium supplies to be sold off by 2015, a representative of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management told the Wall Street Journal in August.

The hope was that by the time the reserve was sold, new sources of helium would be online and take up the demand, but that has not happened yet, Joe Peterson, the bureau’s assistant field manager for helium in Amarillo, told Popular Mechanics.

Until more companies begin producing helium on their own, consumers are left with spiking prices and tightening supplies.

In 2010, a National Academy of Science report warned of a possible helium shortage if the reserve closed, the Wall Street Journal story reported.