The drought-depleted Mississippi River will remain safe for barge traffic at least for the next week and possibly until Jan. 26, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes progress in removing submerged rocks.
Mike Petersen, a Corps spokesman, said water levels near the so-called rock pinnacles at Thebes in southern Illinois will remain above 10 feet through Jan. 10. Expedited work to remove the obstacles will add an additional two feet of depth to the channel by Jan. 11, he said yesterday in an interview.
Barge operator AEP River Operations LLC said the agency provided the company with a more optimistic estimate.
“The Corps is now stating that our 10 feet of water depth looks to be good through the 26th of January,” Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for the St. Louis-based company, said yesterday in a phone interview. While Petersen would not confirm the Jan. 26 date, he said the Corps expects the river to remain open.
Closing the river could threaten as much as $2.8 billion in cargo, including grain, coal and crude oil that is expected to move along the Mississippi this month, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group.
“Low Mississippi River levels are presenting logistical difficulties and consequently creating a sense of urgency to ensure product availability for the spring,” Jim Prokopanko, chief executive officer of Mosaic Co., the largest U.S. fertilizer producer, said in a statement today as the company reported earnings.
Tonnage of grain moved by barges in the week ended Dec. 29 was down 28 percent from a year earlier, the government said yesterday.
The Corps and shippers had been at odds over the possibility of a river closure, after the National Weather Service on Jan. 2 forecast that the waterway near St. Louis may drop to 9 feet by Jan. 9. That’s the minimum depth the Corps tries to maintain to keep barge traffic flowing.
Shippers have said most tow boats, which pull barges, need more than 9 feet of water to operate safely. Shipping companies have called for more water to be released from upstream reservoirs.
The U.S. Coast Guard has the authority to close the river in an emergency.
“We do not foresee the necessity to close the river,” Colin Fogarty, a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Louis, said yesterday in a phone interview.