High river water creates navigation turmoil

The inland waterways were topped off with a shot of heavy rains in November and December, resulting in near-historic crests on the Illinois and upper Mississippi rivers. 

While concerns eased somewhat as crests fell, the high water moving downstream still could result in conditions that contributed to allisions, runaway barges and capsizings last spring and summer.

Grain elevators and terminals closed in Illinois just before the New Year, and the Corps of Engineers opened the Old River Overbank Structure southeast of Alexandria, La., in anticipation of pressure from the rising river. With the Atchafalaya River in line to get its designated 30% of flow from Old River, the Coast Guard imposed high water towing limitations on southbound vessels near Morgan City, La.  

The Corps prepared for opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway near New Orleans and the Morganza Spillway, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, around Jan. 9 — the earliest calendar date ever — based on forecasted river stages, said district commander Col. Richard L. Hansen. New vessel restrictions were on the way.

“They’re going to work with the Coast Guard, because they’re releasing water and it may not be safe to tie up” close to the outflows, said Matt Roe, a Corps spokesman. There would also be enforcement “if anyone goes out on the levees” during the high water, he said.

On the upper Mississippi, Corps officials pulled back from plans for a levee breach to open the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway on the west bank in Missouri — a move that would have inundated more farms and homes — after a lowered forecast for the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., offered hope that the worst was past. 

“It doesn’t mean we’re completely out of the woods,” said Col. Jeff Anderson, commander of the Corps Memphis (Tenn.) District, as the river stage at New Madrid still stood at 44′, or 14′ above flood stage. “There’s still a lot of water in the system that’s making its way to the Gulf of Mexico, and we must be prepared for future rain events within the massive Mississippi River drainage basin.”

Barge interests are closely monitoring developments.

“I don’t think you’ll see any catastrophic levee failures, but we will definitely be seeing the effects of this for a long time. This is going to be among the top 10 crests,” said Austin Golding of Golding Barge Line, Vicksburg, Miss. “The big part of it is going to hit here around the 12th to 14th (of January). I think you’ll see this high water be sustained. It may go right into the summer.”  

Last year, high and fast water from March into the summer contributed to a string of accidents, some with fatalities, and led the Coast Guard and Corps to issue warnings and traffic controls. 

— Kirk Moore

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