The American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council, Inc. are calling upon Congress and the Administration to address a developing drought-caused situation on the Mississippi River which could bring commerce to a halt in early December.
Water releases from dams on the upper Missouri River are planned to be significantly scaled back later this month as the impact of the 2012 drought lingers. And these reductions are expected to negatively impact the Mississippi River water level between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., beginning Dec. 1.
Of particular concern are hazardous rock formations near Thebes, Ill., and Grand Tower, Ill., which threaten navigation when water levels drop to anticipated, near historic lows. The rock formations, combined with the drought-reduced flows from the Missouri River, will prohibit the transport of essential goods along this critical point in the river, stopping barge transportation on the middle Mississippi River around Dec. 10.
"Along with 150 million tons of agricultural products, nearly 180 million tons of coal, 150 million tons of petroleum, and all of the associated manufacturing jobs those and many other commodities support, the effects of stopping commerce on the Mississippi River will be felt harshly across the country," said Michael J. Toohey, President and CEO of WCI.
"We need to find a way to keep commerce moving, and I am confident the government can do so without having a significant impact on the many other beneficiaries of our inland waterways system whose need for water we recognize," he continued.
AWO and WCI are urging Congress and the President to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the removal of the rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower before the Mississippi River reaches critical low water levels in December. The groups said that additional measures should also be explored to preserve water levels that support navigation on the Mississippi through the winter months.
Mike Petersen, St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers public affairs chief, said the Corps have plans finalized to remove the rock, though no work has yet been completed. He said the Corps is working within their power as quickly as possible to keep the river open, despite record low water levels on the Mississippi.
"The Corps recognizes the impact that reduced navigation would have on the nation," Petersen said. "Our main goal is to provide that channel and we are dealing with extraordinary circumstances right now. Since the last major drought that we went through in 1988-89, we have done extensive river engineering that has reduced the need to dredge."
Petersen added that instead of having eight dredges, like they did in the 80s, the Corps is now running only two – showcasing the investments made in river engineering and rock removal.
Though the Corps is working to keep the Mississippi safely within commerce regulations, it is ultimately up to the U.S. Coast Guard to close the river if needed.
Tom Allegretti, AWO President and CEO, again stressed the importance of the river and the potential role of Congress and the Administration in keeping the river navigable.
"Congress and the Administration need to understand the immediate severity of this situation. The Mississippi River is an economic superhighway that efficiently carries hundreds of millions of tons of essential goods for domestic use as well as national export. We need to address this situation swiftly, cut through bureaucratic red tape, and prevent the closure of the Mississippi," Allegretti said.