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Corps using ‘all available capabilities’ to keep Mississippi open


ST. LOUIS – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue its efforts to sustain the nine-foot commercial navigation channel on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., and the waterway continues to remain open, though only for eight hours a day and only in one direction at a time, according to the latest reports. The Corps said in a statement it “continues to apply all available capabilities and resources to keep the channel open."  

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Those capabilities include the removal of rock obstructions, which will enable a roughly two-foot-deeper channel in the Thebes reach of the river by Jan. 11, and water releases from the Corps’ Carlyle Lake in Illinois. There has also been some rain to help alleviate the situation.

This comes as good news just a short time after the Corps advised industry members that commerce on the Mississippi could come to a total halt either today or tomorrow. However, industry members remain cautious. "We're waiting for verification from the Corps on how rock removal is coming along at Thebes," Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, Chesterfield, Mo., told WorkBoat Thursday morning. (Hettel was interviewed by NBC News Wednesday night. You can see his comments here.)

According to the Corps, the latest National Weather Service worst-case, “no rain” forecasts predict river levels won’t reach -5 feet on the St. Louis gage until mid-January. At that point, the Corps said, the rock formations at Thebes will be removed enough to prevent a negative impact to the nine-foot navigation channel.

According to a statement by Corps Mississippi Valley Division Cmdr. Maj. Gen. John Peabody, “The Corps rock removal contractors are making excellent progress in removing the rock obstructions from the primary area of concern. We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue.”

However, industry groups like the Waterways Council and the American Waterways Operators continue to push for the Corps to release water from the Missouri River “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, this latest forecast and falling water levels will preclude navigation because towboats will be unable to transit the ‘bottleneck reach’ between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois,” the groups said in a press release just after Christmas.

“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,” Michael J. Toohey, president and CEO, Waterways Council, said in a statement. “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.”

The waterways groups say that the current situation could result in the loss of 8,000 jobs in January alone.

“As goes the Mississippi, so goes much of the industry in Illinois,” Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement yesterday as he prepared to survey the situation personally. “Between this summer’s drought and the current upstream freezing, Mother Nature has dealt us a difficult hand when it comes to keeping the river open to shippers transporting goods to market. I wanted to come to Thebes today to get an up-close look at some of the most important work underway to keep the Mississippi open. The White House is monitoring this situation carefully and briefing me weekly on the issue as we work to maintain navigation on the river.”



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