Water levels in the Mississippi River south of St. Louis are falling faster than anticipated, requiring more urgent action to keep the nation’s busiest waterway open, according to a group of shipping companies.
Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now projects river levels may fall to a point at which many tugboats can’t operate by Jan. 3 or Jan. 4. Previous estimates indicated that the river would remain navigable until at least the middle of the month, she said.
“The problem is the window to do anything about this is closing quickly,” Colbert said today in a telephone interview.
Shippers carry about $7 billion in goods including crude oil and grain on the Mississippi in December and January. Tugboat and barge operators have warned that thousands of jobs in Illinois, Missouri, Louisiana and other states in the country’s midsection were at risk if the river shuts down, and they’ve asked Washington to find ways to increase the flow.
Most tugboats need about 10 feet of water to operate effectively. By the end of next week, only vessels with a draft of no more than 8 feet will able to run through the area of the river near Thebes, Illinois, 128 miles (206 kilometers) south of St. Louis, Colbert said. The draft is the distance from the surface of the water to a boat’s lowest point.
“Only a handful can navigate at 8 feet,” Colbert said. Lower than that, “We’re effectively shut down.” That point could be reached around Jan. 12 or Jan. 13, she said.
Colbert said the Arlington, Virginia-based group received the more pessimistic assessment from the Corps in an e-mail on Dec. 24. The forecast apparently doesn’t include precipitation estimates from a storm that today dumped snow in parts of the Midwest.
The council is repeating calls for President Barack Obama’s administration to release more water from the Missouri River, the Mississippi’s largest tributary.
The Army Corps has rejected those calls, saying releasing more water from reservoirs along the Missouri would put drinking-water supplies and wildlife at risk and may raise hydropower electric bills.
The Corps has released water from Carlyle Lake in southwest Illinois to add about 6 inches of depth to the lowest point on the Mississippi.
Corps officials have said they thought tugboats and barges would be able to continue to operate on the river.
“We remain cautiously optimistic that if we do have any interruptions, it will be short in duration as we continue to maintain a safe and reliable navigation channel,” Major General John Peabody, the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division commander, said in a statement released yesterday. The Corps is also looking at the possibility of additional releases from other reservoirs, Peabody said.
Michael Petersen, a Corps spokesman in St. Louis, said he wasn’t aware of the Dec. 24 forecast cited by the Waterways Council.
The agency is also working to remove rock formations near Thebes to provide tugboats more room to operate.
Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought since the 1930s combines with a seasonal dry period to drop water levels, prompting shippers, including Archer-Daniels- Midland Co. (ADM:US) and AEP River Operations LLC, to seek alternatives.
The Waterways Council and the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade association representing the tugboat and barge industry, earlier this month estimated that Mississippi River traffic supports about 20,000 jobs and generates $130 million in wages for states along the waterway in December and January alone.
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