Low water levels threaten Mississippi commerce

droughtDECEMBER 27, 2012—Low water levels on the Mississippi River caused by a drought in the U.S. Midwest could force waterway commerce to a halt and have a major impact on the U.S. economy.

Two industry groups, the Inland Waterways Council and the American Waterways Operators, point out that a Mississippi River shutdown could amount to a staggering loss for the U.S. economy, affecting nearly 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages in Mississippi River states as well as $7 billion in commodities in December and January alone. The movement of billions of dollars of agricultural, chemical and petroleum products, as well as coal and crude oil would be affected.

Late Christmas Eve, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advised the waterways industry that the most current 28-day weather and water forecast for the Mississippi River area near Thebes, Illinois, south of St. Louis, suggests that commerce on the Mississippi River could come to an effective halt earlier than expected in the New Year, around January 3 or 4.  Earlier forecasts had suggested that the congressionally authorized nine-foot navigation channel could remain in operation until perhaps the middle of January.

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting rock pinnacle removal work in the area to aid navigation. However, the industry would like to see water released from the Missouri River to increase water levels on the Mississippi to aid in navigation.

The latest forecast calls for the Mississippi River gauge at Thebes is that it will be at 3 feet and falling on or around January 3-4, with vessel drafts limited to 8 feet. The forecast for the river gauge to reach to 2 feet and falling will be on or around January 12-13, allowing only a 7-foot maximum vessel draft. It is estimated that the river will reach a reading of 1 foot and falling on or around January 19, which equates to 6 feet of navigable depth. The majority of towboats require a 9-foot draft to operate and only a very small number of towing vessels can operate at 8- or 7-foot drafts.

Stakeholders continue to urge the Obama Administration to release a minimal amount of water from the Missouri River reservoirs (4,000 cfs or 1% of current storage in the reservoir system) to avert this effective shutdown of the Mississippi River to barge transportation. While the Corps and the Coast Guard have said that they have no plans to close the river, this latest forecast and falling water levels will preclude navigation because towboats will be unable to transit the “bottleneck reach” between St. Louis and Cairo, IL.

To date, the Corps has rejected the request to release water from the reservoirs saying it does not have the authority. Other states also depend on the water in the reservoirs.

“The Corps’ rock pinnacle removal and dredging work and our collective prayers for rain have not produced enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River and so the Administration must act to avert a closure,” says Michael J. Toohey, President & CEO, Waterways Council, Inc.  “We have been urging action all along and the time is now to release needed water or we will have run out of time on this national crisis."  

 “The nation’s shippers, farmers, manufacturers and operators have been feeling the impacts of this emergency, with cancelled orders, lost exports to market, and higher prices to consumers, but unless water is provided now to avert a shutdown, those impacts will increase significantly,” says Tom Allegretti, President & CEO, American Waterways Operators.

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