Obstructions upriver could bring traffic to a halt

Published 11:42 am Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River could ground to another halt in December if obstructions in the river between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., are not removed, two industry groups contend.

Rock formations near Thebes, Ill., and Grand Tower, Ill., and reduced flows from the Missouri River due to less water being released from nearby dams, “could effectively bring commerce on the Mighty Mississippi to a halt” around Dec. 10, according to a joint news release from two industry groups.

Water levels up and down the river rose slowly in October after near-record lows during the spring and summer, the result of drought conditions across much of the Midwest. This morning’s stage in Vicksburg was 9.3 feet. The National Weather Service forecasts it will fall back again by mid-December, possibly to half a foot on the Vicksburg gauge, and threaten transport of essential dry and liquid cargo, the groups said.

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“We do anticipate consequences for the entire river system,” said spokeswoman Ann McCulloch of Arlington, Va.-based American Waterways Operators, which represents the nation’s tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

The river closed intermittently twice in August near Greenville, where barges had run aground. About $6.84 million in emergency dredging between Greenville and Vicksburg began in late June and is funded to about mid-December with work at the Port of Vicksburg.

AWO and Waterways Council Inc., a public policy advocate for the nation’s port system, urged Congress and President Barack Obama to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the rock formations before the river dips to critically low water levels in December.

At stake is about 150 million tons of agricultural products, 180 million tons of coal, 150 million tons of petroleum, plus jobs supported by those commodities, WCI president and CEO Michael J. Toohey said in the release.

“We need to find a way to keep commerce moving, and I am confident the government can do so without having a significant impact on the many other beneficiaries of our inland waterways system whose need for water we recognize,” Toohey said.

“Congress and the administration need to understand the immediate severity of this situation,” said AWO president and CEO Tom Allegretti. “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.”

The lowest stage recorded in Vicksburg this year was minus 1 foot, on Aug. 28. The record local low is minus 7 feet, set in 1940.