The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responding to pressure from Midwestern lawmakers, has agreed to speed up measures to keep the drought-shrunken Mississippi River open to barge traffic.
With falling water levels threatening to halt traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway within weeks, a contingent of heartland senators met with Army Corps officials yesterday to press for the release of more water from a major tributary and the blasting of submerged rocks that obstruct traffic.
“We could see navigation either diminished or even stop” within weeks unless work begins soon, said the host of the meeting, Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democratic member of the Senate.
The lawmakers and shippers have asked President Barack Obama to declare an emergency to hasten efforts to keep the waterway open as grain piles up from harvest and other goods are being diverted to railroads. Some $7 billion worth of products move over the Mississippi in a typical December and January, though the worst drought in 50 years is combining with the dry season to push water levels to near record lows.
“We also share the specific concerns from lawmakers and others about the decreasing water level of the Mississippi,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday in a briefing. “While there is a complex set of legal, technical and policy questions around these issues, we are exploring all possible options.”
Specifically, lawmakers asked for increasing the flow over dams in the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi near St. Louis, and to speed up the planned removal of submerged rock formations, called pinnacles, near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, told the lawmakers she would respond to their concerns about water flow within a week, Durbin said in an interview afterward.
“They told us they would expedite it as quickly as the law will allow,” he said.
The Corps also agreed to move quickly to remove the rock structures in the river near southern Illinois, he said. Pinnacle removal “is very time sensitive,” Durbin said.
The Corps of Engineers needs to determine whether release of the water would have a negative impact on Missouri river communities that rely on the tributary, including Kansas City and St. Louis, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, told reporters after the meeting yesterday.
“They’re hopeful they can start on this in December,” Harkin said. Other senators attending yesterday’s meeting included Republicans Roy Blunt of Missouri and Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The water release, which would be needed for at least three or four months, may reduce drinking water supplies, which is why the Corps needs to study its impact, he said. The pinnacle removal would occur at the same time, Harkin said.
Gene Pawlik, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said the Corps has agreed to respond to the lawmakers request for an impact study “fairly quickly’.’
‘‘Until we start seeing some specifics, we’re going to be pushing for the things we’ve been pushing for all along,” said Ann McCulloch, spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators, a trade association of boat operators based in Arlington, Virginia. “We feel the work needs to start immediately.”
The pinnacles are the only place in the river between St. Louis and New Orleans where the water flows over bedrock, Nicholas Pinter, a professor of geology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois, said in a phone interview. The Corps plans to dynamite the limestone structures, which can prevent ships from passing if the water level gets too low.
“Dynamite is an act of desperation,” Pinter said. “When all else fails, that’s how you get over the low bumps.”
At the Chain of Rocks north of St. Louis, engineers spent decades trying to blast a bedrock formation before giving up in the early 1900s, he said.
“There’s a 100-year plus history of trying to engineer the river to the boats,” according to Pinter. “What they do in other spots of the world is engineer the boats to the limitations of the river.”
The stretch of Mississippi River in question also lies within the New Madrid seismic area. Because the fault lines run fairly deep and blasting will take place near the surface, triggering an earthquake isn’t feasible, Pinter said.
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