Mississippi Water Level Buoys Odds of Keeping River Open

Barge traffic on the drought-shrunken Mississippi River may not be impeded until later this month because the water level isn’t falling as fast as projected, according to a U.S. estimate.

The National Weather Service now says that without significant precipitation, the river at St. Louis may drop to about nine feet by Dec. 26, according to Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist with the agency. That’s the level at which officials have said barge traffic could be restricted.

Shippers are concerned that depleted water levels, exacerbated by the worst drought in more than 50 years, will hamper barge traffic on a stretch of river near the towns of Thebes and Grand Tower, Illinois, south of St. Louis. That’s the area where officials had originally projected barges carrying oil, coal grain and other commodities could be restricted as early as next week.

“For the next week or so, we are not planning any restrictions,” said Lt. Colin Fogarty, incident management chief for the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Louis. “But we won’t handcuff ourselves if we see a threat to safety.”

Low water levels already have forced barge companies to cut their loads, which increases shipping costs. That’s because it takes more barges and fuel to move the same amount of cargo.

“It is impacting the industry,” Fogarty said in a telephone interview.

Ingram Barge Co., a Nashville-based shipper, plans to reduce its loads so that boats can operate in as little as nine feet of water, Keel Hunt, a company spokesman, said in a phone interview.

Daily Judgment

“This is a day-by-day judgment,” Hunt said. “We’re all hoping for heavy rain.”

Canal Barge Co., a New Orleans-based marine transport company, began cutting its loads on boats Nov. 28, Ron Zornes, the company’s corporate operations director, said in a phone interview last week.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had previously projected low water levels would affect commercial traffic by Dec. 11 and the river would reach a record low by Dec. 22. The Mississippi River at St. Louis now won’t reach its historic low point within the next four weeks, according to the latest National Weather Service forecast, issued yesterday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin blasting rock structures that could obstruct barge traffic near Thebes by Jan. 3. Lawmakers led by Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, also are pressing the Corps to quickly increase the flow of water from the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi near St. Louis.

Missouri Water

Legislators have asked the Corps to provide by today an impact study of releasing water from the Missouri. A group of lawmakers from states along the river sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Nov. 30 arguing that the Corps has no authority to increase the water flow to help commerce along the Mississippi.

The water level near Thebes would have to fall by about 18 inches before navigation begins to be affected at that point in the river, according to the Corps.

There’s a possibility for showers in the St. Louis area beginning tomorrow and continuing through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Fogarty said that may not be enough to forestall commercial traffic restrictions on the river.

“The rainfall is a palliative at best,” he said. “Unless we see a real long, sustained rainfall, it’s not going to radically impact the water levels.”

“Right now the Midwest is like a dry sponge,” Fogarty said. “Any rain we get, the land wants it. Even if we do, the effects should be minimal at best.”

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