Mississippi River Shutdown May Come Sooner Than Expected

Waterways groups warn of possible shutdown as early as Jan. 3-4

Published on: Dec 28, 2012

The latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecast for Mississippi River water levels near Thebes, Ill., could mean that traffic will come to a halt as early as Jan. 3, according to the Waterways Council, Inc.

Though previous forecasts suggested that the congressionally authorized nine-foot navigation channel could remain in operation until perhaps the middle of January, the latest forecast calls for the Mississippi River gauge at Thebes to be at 3 feet and falling on or around January 3-4, with vessel drafts limited to 8 feet, WCI says.

The forecast for the river gauge to reach to 2 feet and falling will be on or around January 12-13, allowing only a 7-foot maximum vessel draft. It is estimated that the river will reach a reading of 1 foot and falling on or around January 19, which equates to 6 feet of navigable depth.

Work has begun on rock pinnacle removal near Thebes, Ill., but some caution that rock removal isnt enough to keep river commerce moving.
Work has begun on rock pinnacle removal near Thebes, Ill., but some caution that rock removal isn't enough to keep river commerce moving.

WCI notes that a majority of towboats require a 9-foot draft to operate and only a very small number of towing vessels can operate at 8- or 7-foot drafts.

WCI and other stakeholders continue to urge the Administration to release a minimal amount of water from the Missouri River reservoirs (4,000 cfs or 1% of current storage in the reservoir system) to avert this effective shutdown of the Mississippi River to barge transportation.

While the Corps and the Coast Guard have said that they have no plans to close the river, WCI says this latest forecast and falling water levels will preclude navigation because towboats will be unable to transit the "bottleneck reach" between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill.

"The Corps' rock pinnacle removal and dredging work and our collective prayers for rain have not produced enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River and so the Administration must act to avert a closure," said Michael J. Toohey, WCI president and CEO.  "We have been urging action all along and the time is now to release needed water or we will have run out of time on this national crisis," he continued.  

Tom Allegretti, American Waterways Operators president and CEO, stressed the effects closure would have on industry.

"The nation's shippers, farmers, manufacturers and operators have been feeling the impacts of this emergency, with cancelled orders, lost exports to market, and higher prices to consumers, but unless water is provided now to avert a shutdown, those impacts will increase significantly," Allegretti noted.

"Unless the Administration takes action now, the nation risks 60 days or more without waterborne commerce on the mid-Mississippi River. We urge the White House to authorize the release of additional water immediately to maintain navigation on our country's busiest and most important waterway," Allegretti said.

WCI says the potential supply-chain disruption could affect nearly 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages in Mississippi River states as well as $7 billion in commodities in December and January alone, including more than 7 million tons of agricultural products worth $2.3 billion and 1.7 million tons of chemical products worth $1.8 billion.

"Thousands of the nation's farmers, shippers, manufacturers and towboat operators urge action from President Obama to direct the Corps to release a small amount of water from Missouri River reservoirs over a short period of time to keep businesses open, exports and cargo moving, and Americans employed," Toohey and Allegretti concluded.

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