Mississippi Shutdown Averted as Rains Ease Danger at Choke Point

The drought-depleted Mississippi River is about 6-feet higher at a choke point in southern Illinois than it was two weeks ago, the National Weather Service said, allowing barges to pass safely at least through the end of the month.

The increased depth near the town of Thebes is due to heavy rains upstream and emergency work that removed rock obstacles from the riverbed, according to Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in St. Louis, which oversaw the excavation.

“It looks like good sailing well into February,” Richard Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., said today in a phone interview. “The immediate danger has passed.”

About $2.8 billion in goods including grain, fertilizer, coal and crude oil travel along the Mississippi, the country’s busiest river, in a typical January, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group. Low water caused by the country’s worst drought in more than 70 years has forced barge operators to lighten cargoes to navigate in shallow areas.

River traffic jams, combined with less export tonnage has created uncertainty for operators as far south as Louisiana. Companies including AEP River Operations LLC of St. Louis and American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Indiana, have idled boats because of the slowdown.

Contractors have deepened the channel near Thebes by about 2 feet since mid-December, when the work began.

‘Appreciative’ Shippers

“It appears they will be able to sustain a 9-foot navigation channel through the spring, for which shippers and operators are appreciative,” Keel Hunt, a spokesman for Ingram Barge Co. of Nashville, Tennessee, said in a phone interview.

While rain has raised water levels in some stretches of the river, the drought could threaten navigability again, should it continue.

“I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods completely,” Petersen, the Corps’ spokesman, said in a phone interview today.

The National Weather Service will publish its next four-week forecast for river levels tomorrow.

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