Despite Protests, Warnings River Flows Slowed

The Army Corps of Engineers fired up its plan to reduce Missouri River flows into the Mississippi, which could have wide-ranging implications.

Published on: Nov 26, 2012

It appears no amount of protest, or disagreement, is keeping the the Army Corps. of Engineers from restricting Missouri River flows into the Mississippi. The effort, which began last Friday, is aimed at keeping levels higher on the Missouri, but the long-term impact could hinder traffic both up and down the Mississippi.

Just last week a group of U.S. Senators asked the Assistant Secretary for Civil Works to prevent the "impending disruption to inland waterways navigation." The key worry is that restricting those flows could drop river levels for the Mississippi at St. Louis below navigable levels. Already the fall harvest of 2012 is heading down river on those barges, and perhaps more importantly, key crop inputs like fertilizer could be heading north.

LOW FLOW: River traffic on the Mississippi doesnt have the luxury of moving so smoothly as this barge does. The Army Corps of Engineers is reducing river flows even further in the wake of the drought.
LOW FLOW: River traffic on the Mississippi doesn't have the luxury of moving so smoothly as this barge does. The Army Corps of Engineers is reducing river flows even further in the wake of the drought.

However, water levels on the Mississippi are at record low levels after the historic 2012 Drought and recent rains in some parts of the country have done little to help so far.

In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon and the barge industry have made an effort to stop the Corps' efforts to restrict water flows. They argue that sufficient water must be kept flowing into the Mississippi. Both the Missouri and Mississippi water levels are at historic lows.

Barge companies are carrying lighter loads to reduce the draft of their vessels, and more grain is moving by rail to Gulf ports. One concern is that fertilizer moving from the Gulf could be restricted if the Mississippi is closed - a real possibility given current flows.

If the drought doesn't break by 2013 more than grain farmers will be impacted by dry weather. The Mississippi River is a key line of commerce for the United States and restricted traffic on the river system can have wide-ranging consequences.

As the Corps reduces Missouri River flows into next week, there could be pressure to change the decision. Whatever actions are taken, the already crippled Mississippi River could be facing its toughest challenge since the 1988 drought. But river flows at that time were returning toward normal as early as November of that year. This time, it's a new record drought and a potentially new set of problems for shippers moving commodities up and down the river.