A trickle of help is on the way for the parched middle Mississippi River. But that may not be enough to counter the effects of the persistent devastating drought and keep traffic moving this winter.
On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul (Minn.) District began releasing water from its six reservoirs to ease navigation south of St. Louis. A slight rise in water levels is expected in mid-December.
Other big obstacles remain, including hazardous rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower, Ill. The Corps St. Louis District says it’s working on a contract to remove the pinnacles in February — and the pending reduction in flows from the Missouri River. The Corps says the Missouri River, which is affected by the drought as well, is not authorized to provide navigation help for the Mississippi.
Congress and the administration need to act soon and “cut through bureaucratic red tape, and prevent the closure of the Mississippi,” American Waterways Operators CEO Tom Allegretti said in a statement in early November.
At a Friday press conference with the Corps and Coast Guard, the industry rang more alarm bells.
“Slowing down or even severing the country’s inland waterway superhighway would imperil the shipment of critical cargo for export, significantly delay products for domestic use, threaten manufacturing production and power generation, and negatively impact jobs up and down the river,” said Craig Philip, CEO of Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn. “This is not mere rhetoric. The situation is urgent and the potential consequences are dire.”
The rocks need to be removed quickly and Missouri flows need to be maintained, he said. “This work is critical, and cannot wait. We estimate that $7 billion in cargo will stop moving on the Mississippi River if a nine-foot channel cannot be maintained throughout the winter months.”
The situation has even produced some rare bipartisan cooperation in Capitol Hill. Fifteen Republican and Democratic senators have also urged the Corps to keep traffic moving.
“If the river channel is not maintained, there will be a loss of jobs, income to many businesses and farmers, and an adverse impact to the economy of the region as a whole,” they said in a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
Meanwhile, to help mariners who don’t want to end up on the rocks, the Corps has created electronic navigation chart overlays of the dicey area at various river stages.