Mississippi Barges Slowed by Flooding Following Record Drought

Barge traffic on a stretch of the Mississippi River, slowed early this year by shallow water during a drought, now is being hindered by flooding, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps on April 20 closed locks in Clarksville and Winfield, Missouri, both north of St. Louis, in anticipation of high water, the Army said yesterday in a statement. The towns are upstream from the confluence of the Illinois River and Mississippi, America’s busiest waterway. Heavy rains have led the Corps to close seven locks further north on the river, blocking barge and other traffic.

“Barge traffic isn’t going to move north of the Illinois until the locks reopen,” Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the Corps in St. Louis, said today in a phone interview.

Low water levels on river in December and January, caused by the worst drought since the 1930s, forced barge companies including AEP River Operations LLC of St. Louis to idle boats until contractors cleared rock obstructions in the river in southern Illinois. Carriers transporting grain, coal, fertilizer and crude oil now are being slowed by too much water.

The Corps shut the locks, used to help boats navigate past impediments, to prevent components of the facilities from being damaged during a flood, Petersen said.

Flood Proof

“We basically flood-proof them,” using equipment including sandbags as protection from rising waters, he said. The water level at each lock and dam is different, he said. The Army on April 20 also closed a lock on the Kaskaskia River, which joins the Mississippi south of St. Louis.

The Mississippi River at St. Louis reached a level of about 35 feet (10.7 meters) this morning, according the National Weather Service. Flood stage is 30 feet. In January, the river was near the minimum 9-foot depth for navigation.

“The river has crested and is expected to remain at that level for a short period of time but then should recede,” Debra Colbert, senior vice president for the Waterways Council Inc., said in an e-mail. The Arlington, Virginia-based public policy group, which includes shippers and ports, has been working with the Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard to manage conditions and is “not sure there will be too many significant economic impacts from this,” she said.

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