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Mississippi River could become impassable in two weeks

Published: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 9:58 a.m. CST

(MCT) — The Mississippi River could be too shallow for barge traffic between St. Louis and Cairo in two weeks due to decreasing water levels.

According to the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council, the country's busiest inland waterway is nearly too low already for barges loaded with coal, steel and other commerce.

And it is expected to dry up considerably in the next couple of week due to the summer drought and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's move to hold back water from the Missouri River.

"Of particular concern are hazardous rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower which threaten navigation when water levels drop to anticipated, near historic lows," the agencies said in a joint release. "The rock formations, combined with the reduced flows from the Missouri River, will prohibit the transport of essential goods along this critical point in the river, effectively stopping barge transportation on the middle Mississippi River around Dec. 10."

U.S Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said the river is about two feet below normal water levels. He expects it to threaten the all-time low of 6.2 feet below normal in December. The previous low water mark was set in 1940.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a controversial move, last week started to reduce to flow of water from the Missouri River into the Mississippi to make sure areas to the north have adequate water.

"Congress and the Administration need to understand the immediate severity of this situation," American Waterways Operators President and CEO Tom Allegrett said. "The Mississippi River is an economic superhighway that efficiently carries hundreds of millions of tons of essential goods for domestic use as well as national export.

"We need to address this situation swiftly, cut through bureaucratic red tape, and prevent the closure of the Mississippi."

Fogarty said the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers are already working to try to keep the Mississippi River traffic flowing.

"At this point in time the Missouri River has been cut off as we have been expecting since early July," Fogarty said. "The Army Corps of Engineers has begun heavy dredging and the Coast Guard has been moving assets to St. Louis to help in any way it can."

Fogarty said he is not resigned to the idea that the Mississippi will be shut down by low water.

"We will not speculate when or if the river will be closed," Fogarty said. "We're doing everything we can to ensure river traffic will continue to flow. Despite the fact that we have these low water conditions, we're hopeful to keep traffic moving."

Corps of Engineers spokesperson Sue Casseau said the restrictions on the Missouri are something that happen every year to prevent it from becoming too low over the winter and spring. She said usually it isn't a problem because the Mississippi doesn't often suffer from too little water.

"There are long-term consequences to letting the Missouri get too low" Casseau said. "There are several states involved in this situation and the Corps of Engineers is responsible for serving the nation as a whole."

Despite the Corps of Engineer's dredging efforts, there is little that can be done to deepen the channel at Thebes, where the bottom of the Mississippi is rock, not clay like it in most of the channel. The river is nine feet deep at Thebes, a town on the Illinois side of the river south of Cape Girardeau.

"Most barges need at least a 9 foot draft," Fogarty said. But oil barges and ones that carry things like anhydrous ammonia don't need as deep of a draft to get through."

Fogarty said while some old wrecks have been exposed by the low water, none of them are in the channel or otherwise a threat to navigation. He predicted the low water mark record will be broken about Dec. 15.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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