Mississippi Barge Traffic Seen Benefiting From St. Louis Storms

Rain will keep water levels high enough to avert a shutdown of barge traffic along a Mississippi River choke point this month before volumes begin a seasonal rise in February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

More than an inch of rain is expected in St. Louis tomorrow, with further precipitation in four of the following five days, Bloomberg weather data show. That should improve a forecast that has the Mississippi downriver near Thebes, Illinois, falling to levels where barges would face restrictions by Jan. 22, said Michael Petersen, a Corps spokesman. Contractors are currently removing rock obstacles from the riverbed near Thebes to help keep the channel open.

“We’re coming down the home stretch before we get a natural rise out of the river,” Petersen said today in a phone interview from St. Louis.

The Corps may also release water from reservoirs further north on the Mississippi should rain be less than expected, he said. Still, the situation will need to be monitored as the worst U.S. drought since the 1930s, which created the low water levels, makes historical patterns a less reliable predictor of future flows, he said.

The Mississippi in a typical January carries as much as $2.8 billion in cargo, including grain, coal and crude oil, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group.

The Mississippi has dropped to about half its normal level for early January, according to data from the Corps.

Exports Threatened

Commodity exporters including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. of Decatur, Illinois, and St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal producer, ship on the river. A disruption might upend U.S. exports, which the Obama administration is hoping to double by 2014 from 2009 levels.

“We are not out of the woods, and further assurances are needed to provide industry with certainty that is needed for sound business and transportation planning beyond January,” Tom Allegretti, chief executive officer of the waterways group, said yesterday in a statement.

Grain tonnage for the week ended Dec. 29 fell 26 percent from the prior week and 28 percent from the same period a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a Jan. 4 report. The U.S. tracked 199 grain barges, down 29 percent from the prior week, USDA said.

Expedited dredging and rock removal, combined with a warming trend and anticipated rainfall, will maintain at least a 10-foot river depth needed for navigation near Thebes through this month, Major General John Peabody, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley division, said earlier this week. He didn’t offer a forecast beyond Jan. 31.

The river is about 11 feet deep at Thebes. Depths less than 9 feet may impede the tow boats that move barges, the operators have said.

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