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Barge Traffic Delayed Near Mississippi River Low-Water Point

Barge traffic is being delayed near a stretch of the Mississippi River where workers are excavating submerged rocks to make the nation’s busiest waterway more navigable, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“There is a short queue of tows left from last night,” Mike Petersen, a St. Louis-based Corps spokesman, said today in an e-mail. Four northbound boats, as well as four southbound vessels, were awaiting passage this morning near the town of Thebes in southern Illinois, he said.

Contractors there are using a giant aquatic jackhammer to remove the rock “pinnacles” in the Mississippi River, which threaten to impede barge traffic as the water recedes because of the worst drought since the 1930s. Barges owned by companies including Ingram Barge Co. and AEP River Operations LLC may find it difficult to navigate if the water level drops to nine feet, a level projected within a month.

River traffic is being halted from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time to allow the contractors to work. The trip from New Orleans to St. Louis now takes 16 days instead of 10, Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group, said in an e-mail. Barges also are carrying only about 60 percent to 70 percent of normal loads to cope with the low water levels.

Lock Repair

The delay at Thebes is compounded by repair-work on a lock north of St. Louis, where traffic is backed up by 24 hours, she said.

“We are still looking at a potential effective shutdown mid-January,” absent more rain, snow melt or additional water flows from reservoirs or tributaries, she said.

The National Weather Service projects a 70 percent chance of rain and snow today for St. Louis, upstream from Thebes.

“We do see the forecasts improving, and every little bit helps,” Petersen said. “Right now we’re making progress quick enough to stay ahead of the river levels.”

Yesterday, Gregory Page, the chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based grain shipper Cargill Inc., said the Corps’ efforts, along with an improved weather forecast and release of water from the Kaskaskia River, may keep the Mississippi open through the winter.

“The greatest catastrophe, the actual closing of the river, seems to have been averted,” Page said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum in Washington. “It looks like we’ll be able to soldier through.”

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