The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District says navigation between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., will be protected at least until mid-January due to rock removal efforts and water releases from Carlyle Lake.
Based on the latest National Weather Service worst-case, "no rain" forecasts, the Corps say, river levels won't reach 5 feet on the St. Louis gage for a few weeks. At that point, they note, rock formations at Thebes, Ill., will be removed enough to sustain a 9-foot navigation channel.
The Corps also promise that by Jan. 11, the rock removal will provide a 2-foot deeper channel in the Thebes reach of the river.
The Corps expedited the process of rock removal in December due to drought-caused low water levels. The first water releases from Carlyle Lake began Dec. 15. Dredging has been an ongoing process since early July.
Low water on the river has allowed rock removal to be accomplished using excavating equipment, the Corps says. The progress of the excavation reduces the need for marine blasting, although that remains one of the options for permanently improving the channel for low water periods.
The work will remove around 890 cubic yards of limestone from the river to reduce the risk for vessels in the channel during low water. More rock removal is planned for later dates, but the current work will address areas that will have the most immediate impact on the navigation.
"Our contractors are making great progress using heavy excavators to clear much of the rock pinnacles," said Col. Chris Hall, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District. "We're cautiously optimistic that with the success we've had so far and the improved outlook for river levels that we'll be able to stay ahead of the river."
Mississippi Valley Division Commander, Maj. Gen. John Peabody said the removal contractors are making good progress in removing the obstructions and ensuring navigation. He said the Corps believes the channel will be deepened before the worst-case river stage scenario, and was confident navigation would continue.
Despite the Corps' assurance, American Waterways Operators president and CEO Tom Allegretti stresses that all work has yet to be completed. Though the progress is a positive development, he says further assurance is needed to provide industry with certainty that shipping will continue past January.
"There is too much at stake for businesses and their customers that depend on the river, as well as the economies of Mississippi River states and ultimately the country, to put our hopes in best-case scenarios," Allegretti noted in a joint statement with Waterways Council President and CEO Michael Toohey.
Toohey agreed that the logistics of river shipping require certainty.
"If a barge has a 14-day transit time from loading to the low points on the river, barge operators and their customers must make plans based on the forecasted water depth at the time of the barge's arrival at the bottleneck," Toohey said. "That is why longer-term assurance that barges can reliably load to a 9-foot draft even beyond January is absolutely critical."