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Mississippi River drops, threatens barge traffic

Dec. 27, 2012 @ 11:48 PM

ST. LOUIS — The Mississippi River level is dropping again and barge industry trade groups warned Thursday that river commerce could essentially come to a halt as early as next week in an area south of St. Louis.

Mike Petersen of the Army Corps of Engineers said ice on the northern Mississippi River is reducing the flow more than expected at the middle part of the river that is already at a low-water point unseen in decades, the result of months of drought.

The river level is now expected to get to 3 feet at the Thebes, Ill., gauge on Jan. 6, a juncture that could force new limitations. Worse still, the long-range forecast from the National Weather Service calls for the river to keep falling, reaching 2 feet on Jan. 23.

The Coast Guard remains confident that the nation's largest waterway will remain open. But officials with two trade groups -- the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc. -- said in a joint news release that even if the river is open, further limits on barges will bring commercial traffic to a halt.

Thebes, about 150 miles south of St. Louis, is a treacherous spot for barge operators because of hazardous rock formations and a big bend in the river. The corps is in the process of removing the rocks but work isn't expected to be finished until mid- to late-January at the earliest.

The trade groups renewed their call for presidential action requiring the Corps of Engineers to increase the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. The corps cut the flow by two-thirds in November because of drought conditions in that region, reducing the amount of Missouri River water flowing into the Mississippi.

Michael Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., said that without the additional flow "we will have run out of time on this national crisis."

The depth of the Mississippi is regulated by dams north of St. Louis, and the depth increases south of Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River converges. But the roughly 180-mile stretch from St. Louis to Cairo is approaching record lows. Experts say that if barges stop moving, the potential impact on shipments of essentials such as corn, grain, coal and petroleum could reach into the billions of dollars.

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