The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared victory, for now, in its battle to keep the drought-depleted Mississippi River open for barges moving commodities such as coal, grain and crude oil.
Contractors today completed emergency work that included excavating and blasting rock from the riverbed near the towns of Thebes and Grand Tower in southern Illinois, the Army and the U.S. Coast Guard said in a joint statement.
“A tremendous amount of effort now and in the years leading up to this drought has gone into keeping the river open,” Colonel Chris Hall, the commander of the Army Corps’ St. Louis district, said in the statement. “The end results have been permanent improvements to the navigation channel.”
Contractors have been working since December to deepen the river channel while the worst U.S. drought since the 1930s forced barge delays, and companies including AEP River Operations LLC idled boats on the nation’s busiest waterway. The statement by the federal agencies effectively declares the crisis over.
The Corps is authorized to maintain a navigable channel at least 9 feet (2.7 meters) deep in the river, and the National Weather Service yesterday forecast that the depth near St. Louis will be at least 16.5 feet through March 27. The river near Thebes, which was the most treacherous point for barge traffic, is now more than 20 feet deep.
The improvement in navigation is “welcome news to shippers and operators,” Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based public policy group that includes shippers and ports, said today in an e-mail. “Let’s hope this positive trend continues.”
Billions of dollars worth of cargo travel along the river during a typical month. High water facilitates the traffic and benefits shippers and carriers including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. of Decatur, Illinois, and Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis.
Recent rain and snow in the nation’s midsection have also helped improve navigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today in its weekly Grain Transportation Report.
Carriers report loading barges to draft levels of at least 9 feet in most locations, eliminating the need for vessels to lighten loads, the USDA said. The number of grain barges unloaded in New Orleans increased 18 percent for the week ending Feb. 23 from the previous week, it said.
The upper Mississippi River and a tributary, the Missouri River, may still return to drought-depleted levels because of dry soil and low reservoirs, according to forecasters. The rivers will need more rain than normal in the coming months to avoid repeating near-record low levels this year, Steve Buan, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, said Feb. 21 during a congressional staff briefing in Washington.
The Coast Guard and the Army Corps said they were continuing their coordination with the shipping industry on how to respond if more emergency work is needed.