Cargill's barge company, Cargo Carriers, Friday announced it was responding to lower water levels on the Mississippi by limiting northbound barge drafts to 8 feet, according to a report from Reuters. The company says it expects to soon impose similar limitations on southbound traffic.
The limitations come as water levels have dropped on the upper Mississippi in response to a decrease in water flows from the Missouri River. Additionally, rock formations near Thebes, Ill., and Grand Tower, Ill., have shippers concerned about the ability of barge traffic to keep flowing.
The issue has attracted the attention of shipping and commerce groups, as well as lawmakers. On Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, a group of 18 commerce organizations and a bipartisan group of lawmakers delivered a written request to President Barack Obama for emergency action to increase water flows and expedite rock removal.
"Given the magnitude of the economic impact that would result from a potentially months-long loss of navigation on the Mississippi, we support an emergency directive to permit additional water flows from Missouri River reservoirs to maintain navigation on the Mississippi, and to waive Federal Acquisition Rules to allow the Corps of Engineers to expedite blasting of the rock pinnacles near Grand Tower and Thebes, Illinois," the Senators wrote in their letter Thursday.
On Friday, the American Waterways Operators and the Waterways Council estimated that states along the river would see an immediate impact on jobs, with potential losses in Louisiana, Illinois and Missouri the harshest – 16,744 estimated jobs in all.
AWO President Tom Allegretti said there is evidence that a regional economic crisis is in the making that necessitates action from the President.
"Given the number of jobs at stake if commerce on the Mississippi is crippled, and especially given the ripple effect on local economies up and down the river, the Administration cannot afford to remain silent on this critical issue," Allegretti noted.
Kurt Johnson, owner of Southern Illinois Transfer, a small business based in Chester, Ill., said the loss of revenue from a possible closure would take the company years to fully recover, noting the effects would be "devastating."
AWO emphasized the value of products shipped just in December and January alone would include 7 million tons of agricultural products worth $2.3 billion and 1.7 million tons of chemical products worth $1.8 billion.
"So much of what we use in our daily lives has its start on the river, whether we realize it or not," Allegretti said. "Agricultural products are critical exports, but they also fill our grocery stores. Coal that travels on the Mississippi fires our power plants and allows us to have electricity at the flip of a switch. Petroleum becomes gas for our cars, rock salt keeps our roads clear in the winter months. Cement and gravel literally help build construction projects and chemicals and other raw materials keep manufacturing facilities busy. There is really little that is left untouched by what moves on that river, and there is much at risk if immediate action is not taken."