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Army Rejects Plea to Boost Water for Mississippi Barges

Army Rejects Plea to Boost Water Flow for Mississippi Barges
Potash is unloaded from a river barge along the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. Photographer: Whitney Curtis/Bloomberg

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected shippers’ requests to increase the flow from a major Mississippi River tributary, which a barge company said is needed to keep open the nation’s busiest waterway.

The Corps found there would be “significant negative effects” on the Missouri River system by increasing the flow, including depleting drinking water supplies, loss of marine-wildlife habitat and higher bills for hydropower users, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, said in a Dec. 6 letter to Senator Richard Durbin, released today. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, was among lawmakers seeking a study to help make the case for additional water flow.

“The letter basically tells me we need to continue to pray for rain,” Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC, said in an interview aboard a tow boat on the Mississippi River just south of Chester, Illinois.

Barges carrying grain, soybeans, coal, oil and other commodities on the Mississippi River have started to reduce their loads to navigate waters shrunk by the worst drought in 50 years. By the end of this month, rock structures in the river near southern Illinois threaten to curtail traffic as the river recedes, according to a Dec. 5 forecast from the National Weather Service.

Companies that rely on the river to transport goods, including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and American Electric Power Co., may see a decline in their cargo shipments.

More Options

“I thought it was a reach to get water off the Missouri,” AEP’s Hettel said. “Industry knows what they’re facing and we were just looking for more options.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is expediting work to remove rock pinnacles that threaten Mississippi navigation between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. That work, originally scheduled for February, might begin this month, according to Darcy’s letter.

The Corps has selected two contractors, from the Chicago area and Iowa, to begin blasting work by the end of the month, according to a Dec. 6 newsletter from AEP River Operations of Chesterfield, Missouri, near St. Louis, a unit of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power.

The company is part of a river-industry group that has held weekly conference calls with the Corps. While the drilling and blasting will cause the channel to close intermittently, the full schedule isn’t yet known, the newsletter said.

1940 Levels

“It’s going to take 40 to 60 days to remove the obstructions,” Hettel said. Without rain, the river at St. Louis is forecast to reach its lowest level since 1940 by the first of the year.

Barge traffic starts being impeded when the river channel falls below a depth of about 9 feet, according to the Corps. The level at St. Louis won’t reach that point until Dec. 26, according to the National Weather Service.

A weather system may bring rain to the Northern Plains and Upper Mississippi River valley this weekend, with rain possible in the Ohio River valley, according to the service’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.

The rain now forecast, expedited removal of the rocks and limited flows authorized from upstream “are expected to be sufficient to sustain navigation” on the middle Mississippi River, without additional releases from the Missouri, Darcy said in her letter to Durbin. She sent identical responses to nine other senators, including Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.

Lawmaker Challenges

The Corps’ determination will make it difficult for lawmakers to push President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration for releasing Missouri water, Durbin said today in a telephone interview.

Durbin said he plans to call for another meeting next week with Darcy, barge operators and representatives from the coal, chemical and farming industries to discuss water issues.

“I want her to spell out why she believes that we can avoid any navigation crisis on the Mississippi,” he said. He said it’s encouraging that the Corps expects rainfall and expedited rock blasting to keep the river navigable.

Shippers and carriers are urging immediate action because any water released from the Missouri River takes about two weeks to raise the level of the Mississippi, according to the Waterways Council Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia. The industry group estimates about $7 billion in commodities travel on the river each December and January. A halt in traffic may affect more than 20,000 jobs, including dockworkers and coal miners, the council said in a joint statement with the American Waterways Operators trade group.

Not Sufficient

The shippers group said removing rock obstructions without adding “a modest amount” of water from the Missouri isn’t enough to maintain a 9-foot channel that will support navigation.

“There is the real chance that navigation could at best be severely impaired, and at worst effectively shut down, for an extended period of time if necessary actions are not taken immediately,” American Waterways Operators President Tom Allegretti said a in a statement. A closing would imperil farm exports and fertilizer shipments needed by February for spring planting, he said.

The request from Midwestern lawmakers and industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for additional water triggered a clash with officials from states that rely on the Missouri River for their livelihood.

The Corps doesn’t have the legal authority to release water from Missouri River reservoirs and such a “shortsighted” effort would exacerbate the effect of the drought along that tributary, lawmakers and governors from Kansas and Montana and North and South Dakota said in a Nov. 30 letter to Obama and to Darcy.

The Corps is taking “all measures within its authority and available resources that are necessary” to keep the Mississippi open for navigation, Darcy said in her letter to Durbin.

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